Saturday, March 31, 2012

Book Review: The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace

For many years I have dealt, as do the priests mentioned in Prof. Slagle's book, with the ongoing conversation with both "convert" and "cradle" or "newbie" and "lifers" or however you want to categorize the influx of non-Orthodox Christians into the Orthodox faith.

Amy Slagle's new book The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace (Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois Press, 2011) is a welcome book for expert and non-expert alike. Slagle is a professor of religious studies at the University of Southern Mississippi. This book is an ethnographic study of what it means to convert to the Orthodox faith and practice. Slagle spent time in both the Pittsburgh, PA area interviewing both clergy, one bishop, and several parishioners as well as in the Deep South, in Jackson Mississippi where she did the same thing. The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace is well written and she included not only a thorough bibliography and copious footnotes but also a list of questions which she asked in her interviews as well as some general background on the parishioners, whom she calls "informants." Everyone agreed to be interviewed and Slagle mentions from time to time that she was present at various liturgical services as well.

As an Orthodox priest who is also a "lifer" this book was particularly interesting because Slagle brings up many points that I myself have thought about and reflected upon. For example the zealousness of new Orthodox Christians to the faith, those who might read several books on the history and practice of the Church and then begin questioning why our parish does things "wrong." In seminary one new convert seminarian questioned my "modern icon" that I had hanging in my room and I smiled when I said that my parish priest gave it to me as a gift when he returned from Moscow! She also brings up issues such as the various times, materials, and resources that converts use to find their way into the Orthodox faith, some via internet and others by reading and studying and others by just "coming and seeing."

Slagle also brings up other points as well, non-Orthodox spouses who convert to the Orthodox faith versus those who spend years of study and research. She also considers both ethnic and non-ethnic Churches too and how they respond to new converts, at one point I caught myself laughing when she discusses new converts in a Greek Church and they call the new person "xenie" which is "foreigner" as if the new person was a stranger or something.

This book would have been very dry probably if it wasn't for Slagle's fine writing style. She manages to weave modern sociological theory, drawing from people like Peter Berger and others as well as weaving direct quotes from her many interviews. We hear from clergy, from converts, from their spouses, and from regular parishioners. We get a ground view of the relationships among these people. She includes lengthy quotes from her interviews so we get a better feel for these people, they are not just generic informants but people with real lives.

While not extensive, after all Slagle only interviewed a select number of people in only two geographic places, we do get a very good picture, grounded in sound socio-anthropological theory on how the Church can accommodate both "newbie converts" and "life-long Orthodox" in a Church which seems to be getting more attention as the years go on. We have to thank Prof. Slagle for her work and hope it continues well into the future.