Thursday, May 03, 2007

Liturgical Bowdlerization?

John has brought up the demand by a handful of allegedly Orthodox Christian priests to revise or even excise certain liturgical texts, ones which especially occur during Passion Week, that sound anti-Semitic. I’d like to make some comments about that, as this blog’s newly invited contributor.

First, I’d like to thank John for inviting me to be a part of his outstanding blog. He has done a great job here, and I hope that I can rise to its standards. Unfortunately—or maybe not!—I tend to write in fits and starts, with considerable gaps in-between. Such is my life and (lack of self-) discipline.

So, let’s get back to this issue of the revision of liturgical texts.

Without trying to open a veritable can of worms, this issue is certainly worthy of sane, holy discussion. We live in post-holocaust times, in the wake of a human tragedy which rightly shapes our moral and spiritual vision. It does not make for smooth sailing, nor should it. I am sensitized to this because I teach a writing class at our community college that uses the book Night, by Eliezer Wiesel. It is a powerful account of a boy's experience in the concentration camps under the Nazis. (Reading this opens the door to discussing religious faith and theodicy in a secular classroom. This is an all-too-rare opportunity that I value!) Racism, bigotry, and violence are spasms of human corruption and sin that must come under the Lordship of Christ, who was of course himself a Hebrew, and the Messiah of the Jewish people.

However, such “calls” as these clergy make raise a host of unavoidable questions for Orthodox Christians. Are our liturgical texts untouchable, absolute and inspired by God, and so "inerrant" in every detail and passage? If not, what are the limits to such revision? How can we modify our liturgical texts without imbibing in a spirit of radical revisionism? Therefore one can stumble two ways: the Scylla of revisionism on the one hand, or the Charybdis of ossification.

However, we must speak to the issue itself, for our worship is our rule of belief and teaching. Lex orandi, lex credendi--if our liturgies sing in a racist key, then we are racist, unless we change those texts. I am convinced that neither the Orthodox Faith nor our liturgical texts are racist, and that the burden of proof is definitely on those who would say otherwise. Those Holy Week texts are not about race, per se, but rather about the community of those who reject their own Messiah. Phrases like “the Jews” are lifted directly from the pages of the New Testament, and in particular the Gospels. These God-inspired texts were of course largely written by Jews. Such texts, biblical and liturgical, are about unbelief and power-mongering, not anti-Semitism. I'm not saying that there isn't a text here and there that doesn't deserve some consideration and attention. But, a systematic Bowdlerization of our tradition of liturgical texts? I think not.

I am not much for worrying of slippery slopes, but we are definitely letting the Camel’s nose under the tent flap here. If we are not careful, we will be nervously jumping at the shouts of every advocacy group or ideology. What other groups could be offended at our liturgical poetry? What of all those "oppressive" texts that smack of patriarchalism to feminists? Do we rush to follow old John Bowdler by prudishly modifying classic texts--especially holy ones--for the sake of current taste?

It is not insignificant that these priests declared this statement during what seems to be an official visit to Israel, one which involved meetings with official representatives. In other words, this was a political event. The context was not a churchly committee meeting, or a diocesan assembly, or meeting of a holy synod. It was not even in a seminary or an academic setting, such as the SBL or AAR. Certainly, an ecclesiastical process with hierarchical oversight is better than ad hoc tinkering on the fly by parish priests seeking media attention!

It was an old Church of England Cathedral Dean that once said, “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” If the Anglicans, and perhaps the Roman Catholics, have paid little heed to such admonitions, we Orthodox had best do better.

In Christ,
Father David


Anonymous said...

In Father Patrick Reardon's memorable phrase, it is called "the aristocracy of the dead." In other words leave it alone. Don't change it but try to understand it. It is obvious to all that "the Jews" does not reflect, for instance, the "jewish" author of the fourth gospel. Egads.

Steve Hayes said...

One of the problems is the imprecision of language. Ioudei in the New Testament can mean Jews (and Jesus was a Jew), but it can also mean Judaeans, and Jesus was not a Judaean but a Galilean.

I've written about this more fully in an article on Antisemitism and Orthodoxy