Folklife and the Authenticity Politics of Orthodox Culture Creation
Orthodox culture is alive and well. It is in the loaves of bread that are lovingly made by a Lebanese grandmother for her son’s birthday. It is in our Pascha baskets, our children’s hilarious mispronunciations of “Christ is Risen” in different languages, and in the community we have together. It is in our camping programs, our mission trips, and our Facebook conversations we have with our fellow parishioners or Orthodox moms. It is our folklife that keeps so much of it alive.
The Tucson-based Southwest Folklife Alliance, a regional folk arts nonprofit affiliated with the University of Arizona, identifies folklife and folklore as “the informal, familiar, common side of human experience not contained in the formal records of culture (often found in museums and universities). The study of folklore includes language, music, dance, games, myths, customs, handicrafts, architecture, food preparation, jokes and humor, and almost anything else that people say, make or do on their own, informally.” Folklife takes place within groups of two, schools, church congregations, cities and regions.
It was this field that ultimately led me, over a decade ago and during my graduate studies, to become an Orthodox Christian.
As a folklorist, I was able to see a lot of beauty in community. Having studied material culture and religious art in my courses, I was able to appreciate communities of Orthodox makers, such as those who are dedicated to crafting liturgical vestments, writing icons, or illustrating children’s books about the saints. My study of experiential and sensory ethnography allowed me to value the smell of incense, the light of beeswax candles, and the echoes of Byzantine chant as part of a truly holistic faith experience. Discussions about small-group engagement and creative practice shaped how I understood Orthodox notions of expressing grief and sorrow at funerals, digital expressions of religious identity, and how people gathered together around the coffee hour table each week.
As Orthodox, we are a very culturally rich faith, and such richness complements the theological depth of two millennia of experience in connecting ourselves and others to a life in Christ.
In spite of this cultural depth, there is dissatisfaction, and fear, that fails to fully understand our own richness. Over the last several years, there has been an increasing wave of desire to create “Orthodox culture,” to focus on cultivating cultural practices within an Orthodox setting as a response to what they see as a post-Christian world. Additionally, there are particular cultures that are drawn upon as models; creatives from the United Kingdom and Russia are frequently discussed, with the latter also being interpreted as a political and sociocultural beacon that American Orthodox should look towards for guidance on living a Christlike life.
These interpretations, however, are nothing new to the field of folklore; in fact, the romantic nationalist notions behind them, and the cultural essentialism that supports them, are relics of the field’s early scholarship during the 19th century. This was an era where scholars asserted control over whose story was authentic (and worthy of telling), and also whose stories would be excluded due to their perceived inauthenticity. Furthermore, the cultural politics of what was good and pure meant that existing cultural practices were often forcibly replaced by outsider notions of what was good and pure. In folklorist David Whisnant’s seminal text All That is Native and Fine, which discusses the cultural politics of the settlement and folk school movements in Appalachia, Whisnant highlights how outside forces, which introduced Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian concepts of “good” cultural practice, often ignored the Scotch-Irish heritage of the local residents, sometimes creating essentialist ideas of what was—true to Whisnant’s title—native and fine.
These antiquated and problematic concepts that shaped so much of early cultural practice during the 19th and 20th centuries have made their way into attempts to create “Orthodox culture” as an alternative to the status quo. One of the ways that this is most prominent is through writing and podcasting, with influences such as Joseph Campbell being frequently cited. Campbell’s writing, inspired largely by Jung, is generally rejected by folklorists, not only because psychoanalytic studies have proven to be insufficient in their understanding of humanity, but also because they focus on finding a single understanding of how things work. (For more on this, see the work of folklorists Jeana Jorgensen, Barre Toelken and Alan Dundes, respectively.) It is what is native and fine to some, yet it is also irresponsible and exclusionary.
The rise of multivocality, combined with post-colonial and critical regionalist scholarship, have all but proven Campbell’s work insufficient to explain the word. Yet he continues to play a role in shaping the work of those in the Orthodox world who wish to forge a “new culture.” This is especially true, given the appropriation of Campbell’s work by figures such as Jordan Peterson—an author that many Orthodox have latched onto due to his critiques of contemporary culture, his past background of researching totalitarianism, and his charismatic nature.
By trying to create a new Orthodox cultural movement, we are engaging in what Archbishop Elpidophoros referred to in his refutation of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option: a “form of Christian ‘Hasidism’ that seeks separation based on external forms.” The world, in the age of the Romantic Nationalists, was authentic, but it was ignored by those with the privilege to selectively decide what was good and worth sharing with others. It separated itself from others, sometimes through racist policies, other times through colonialist essentializing of the “Other,” as many museums of anthropology have demonstrated.
Within our Church, if we try too hard to create a new “Orthodox culture,” we are othering a lot of our brothers and sisters, and their daily lives, as being insufficient. If we are willing to sit and listen to their stories and live, we will find that they live their theology, rather than just read and talk about it.
Rather than lamenting what isn’t there, perhaps what we should be doing is being folklorists in our own parishes. Listening. Sharing our experiences. And lighting candles that the beauty of the everyday meshes with the beauty of our church.
Nic Hartmann is a folklorist, comic artist and adjunct professor at Mount Mercy University.