This book is an excellent treatise on the Eastern Orthodox Christian Faith, written primarily for seekers of Truth by a former Baptist, Father Philip LeMasters, a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America and pastor of St Luke Orthodox Church, Abilene. Fr Philip is also the Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Religion at McMurry University and the Corporate Secretary of the Board of Trustees of St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.
That’s a mouthful of cred about the author – a man I know personally – but I had no knowledge of the man wrote the Foreword: Everett Ferguson. This mystery, at least for me, adds to the melody of this work as I will explain later.
Right out of the gate, in the Preface, the tenor is set:
Christianity in our culture is often a mile wide and an inch deep. It provides a bit of inspiration and moral guidance that prop up whatever way of life particular people happen to want. Heaven forbid, however, that Jesus Christ should actually require something of us or challenge our preconceived notions about the good life. This book invites readers to encounter something entirely different … (xi)
The author then lays out the essence and practice of Orthodox Christianity with the straightforward precision of an experienced teacher. His agenda seems to be: The better I teach, the more you learn, the fewer questions go unanswered. The teaching is methodical, practical, and convincing. Fr Philip loves Eastern Christianity, believes his beloved to be unique and true, and presents his love to you with love. If you are looking for a book that compares and contrasts various Christian beliefs and traditions, passing judgments on the same, this is not your choice, nor his task.
Then again, as is well attested, if you are looking for a book by an adult convert to the Ancient Christian Faith you have a plethora of sundry titles to choose from these days. Some have even joked that, upon conversion to Orthodoxy, one’s published testimony seems almost required! What sets this book apart is the style of the presentation.
When my mother asked me once whether I regretted my religious upbringing as a Baptist, I assured her that I did not. Orthodoxy is the fulfillment of all the good Christian teaching and formation that I received in the denomination of my youth. I honestly don’t think that I have rejected anything from my earlier Christian experience, though much has been completed and put in a larger and healthier spiritual context. (10)
No fears, though, as Fr Philip’s latest book does not include a “Sinners Prayer” or a Pledge Form:
If this book serves to enrich the spiritual lives of those who read it and to encourage them to learn more about Eastern Christianity, it will have met my goal in writing it. (13)
Beginning with Moses and the revelation of God in the Burning Bush, Fr Philip goes about presenting the Holy Trinity in a way that appreciates the mystery but leaves little to be questioned. By the time the Incarnation appears, readers are already poised to embrace the central tenet of the Ancient Faith. Whether the Trinity, the Incarnation, of the perpetual Virginity of Mary, the key to the mystery is the same:
Our knowledge of God is limited entirely to what he has revealed. (30)
To know him is to be in relationship with him, to experience and participate in his life. (32)
Then, when even “Bible Believing Christians” might be ready to shout Amen, this former Baptist writes:
The Bible is part of the truth passed down in the Body of Christ under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but not the only authoritative witness of God’s truth. The contents of the New Testament were not formally canonized until around AD 400, but the Church had been worshipping and proclaiming the gospel ever since the day of Pentecost. The Son of God was incarnate as a human being, not a book. When controversies arose that required clarification on matters crucial to the message of salvation, such as the Holy Trinity or the two natures of Christ, councils met at places such as Nicaea and Chalcedon. They produced creeds and pronouncements that also witnessed authoritatively to the Good News. Councils, creeds, the canon of scripture, icons, liturgy, the lives of the saints, etc., are all sources of theological knowledge in Eastern Christianity. There is no need to choose one and reject others. The Bible is part, but not all, of the tradition. (33)
Then, it must be added before leaving this thought, he states:
Orthodoxy never had or needed a Reformation because the Church did not develop traditions contrary to scripture. (34)
Those who are already members of the Orthodox Church will find much here that is previously known and appreciated but here presented in a succinct, quotable form. Subjects such as the Eucharist, fasting – even sex – are discussed on a down to earth, common sense level. And, speaking of levels, Fr Philip softens the message on fasting and asceticism:
A good rule of thumb is to stretch ourselves a bit, but not beyond what we can do with some regularity and without being total jerks to those around us. No matter how pious we may feel, it is not part of Christian discipleship to make other people suffer for our sins. (49)
The chapter devoted to Mary is a must read for all who seek answers involving the mystery of the Incarnation: “Our best example of a human being in communion with God is Mary …” The revelation of the Mother of God, while ultimately incomprehensible, is presented here in a way that anyone with a mother can appreciate. One of the stumbling blocks for many Protestant seekers is the Orthodox belief that Mary is Ever-Virgin. Yet, it is true; the Virginity of Mary is fundamental, elemental, and foundational to the Faith.
My Protestant friends are sometimes surprised to learn the Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Wesley all believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary. Before the Protestant Reformation, hardly anyone questioned this teaching. In talking with skeptical friends over the years, I have become comfortable with the conclusion that the Church teaches this point about Mary simply because we believe that it is true. Had it somehow been otherwise, Christ would still be our Savior. The point here is not abstract theological necessity, but faithfulness to what the Holy Spirit has revealed. (66)
By far, at least for this reviewer, one of the best sections of the book is titled Football, Liturgical Worship, and Real Life. (An affinity for football here is a plus, but not mandatory.) Fr Philip takes the common knowledge of American sport and translates it to the Faith “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
There is no reason to be afraid of honoring his and our mother. (68)
The church is filled with beautiful icons and the sweet smell of incense permeates the atmosphere. Parishioners make the sign of the cross many times. During Sunday Matins they normally come forward to kiss a bejeweled book containing the readings from the Gospels. After Liturgy, they kiss a cross that the priest holds in his hand. Orthodox liturgy is a multimedia endeavor that appeals to all five senses. I have noticed that even high school stadiums in my part of the world now fill the senses with video playing on the score board, fake smoke surrounding the teams as they take the field, and an ongoing battle of the hands throughout the contest. Cheer leaders, drill teams, and band members – as well as the players, of course – wear glitzy uniforms. Some fans paint their faces, while many more don their school colors and sometimes wave handmade signs to inspire the players. Yes, it is a sight to behold. (70)
Granted, such an analogy excerpted here without full context may leave more than a bit to be desired. As mentioned, it is a whole chapter. But, suffice it to say:
Like the spectators at an athletic event, however, we take on a shared identity when we gather publicly to serve something (in this case, Someone) larger than ourselves. We are the Church, the Body of Christ, in communion with people around the world who believe, worship, and seek to live as Orthodox Christians. This communion extends even beyond this world to include the great cloud of witnesses that have finished the race together with the heavenly host. We do not paint our faces or twirl terrible towels or yell “kill him!,” but we do become a new community that together prays, proclaims a shared faith, and takes Communion. Instead of a tomahawk chop, we make the sign of the cross and bow down making prostration before the Lord. In place of uniforms, the clergy and altar servers wear vestments that reflect the divine glory of heavenly worship. They do not stand at the altar in their workaday duds, even as players on the field do not. They have a special role to play that is not of this world. (71)
Here are a few more nuggets from The Forgotten Faith:
Orthodox clergy are expected to worship during the services. (74)
We will look in vain for any passage in the Bible that presents confession of sin as a solitary matter between the individual and God. (78)
No, infants do not understand what happens in the holy mystery of the Eucharist, but neither do they have to know about the nutritional benefits of mother’s milk in order to profit from nursing. (79)
Since so many Americans assume that being a good Christian simply means being nice, moral, patriotic, and middle class, we could use some holy fools to shock us out of our complacency. (97)
Of course, given our current time of societal struggle, seekers will want to know the Orthodox view of the omnipresent discussion of sex:
Surely everyone struggles with unholy sexual passions in one way or another and there is no room for self-righteous condemnation in genuine Christianity. The Church provides the same compassion to gays and lesbians that it provides to anyone else who struggles with temptation and humbly asks for God’s mercy when they sin. Orthodoxy is not homophobic in the sense of having irrational fear or hatred of people who find themselves attracted to members of the same sex or somehow disconnected from their own male or female bodies. When parishioners go to their priest for counseling on how to lead a holy life and grow as Christians, they receive guidance on how to fight their passions and gain the spiritual strength necessary to abstain from unholy sexual acts of whatever variety. When people stumble and truly repent, spiritual fathers assure them of God’s forgiveness and help them to get back up and move forward step by step. The focus is on the journey to theosis, not an unhealthy obsession about sexual desires of any kind. (136)
It’s a good book. The Forgotten Faith is a pragmatic, sound exposition of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Faith written by an American convert for Americans who are seeking the Truth. It also serves as a reminder to those of us who have entered into the communion of the Holy Church just what it is that She, and we, are about.
Now, about the guy who wrote the Foreword; I have only a cursory knowledge of him – which was obtained via Google:
Everett Ferguson (PhD, Harvard) is professor emeritus of Bible and distinguished scholar-in-residence at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas, where he taught church history and Greek. He is the author of numerous works, including Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Early Christians Speak, and Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries. He was also general editor of the two-volume Encyclopedia of Early Christianity.
Now that’s some cred! Dr Ferguson, a Protestant, is a member of the Church of Christ. Here’s a portion of what he says about The Forgotten Faith:
On moral issues Orthodoxy stands in tension with contemporary issues in American life and culture. On abortion, marriage, sexual ethics, and euthanasia it holds to the common historical Christian positions. But on these questions as well as on capital punishment, environmental stewardship, and the danger of greed and consumerism the Orthodox operate from theological commitments, not from a philosophical or political agenda.
Which brings me to this: Many Americans are searching the Truth; indeed we all long for the Kingdom. Yet our longing is often whetted by merely surfing the internet, scratching the surface, never venturing far from quick answers provided by instant media. I did the same to learn but a tiny bit about the author of the Foreword. But that does not mean I know him. In the same way, in order to know the Forgotten Faith, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Body of Christ, you must present yourself to Her in worship of the Triune God. Fr Philip LeMasters, with The Forgotten Faith, has issued the invitation.