Can I be Eastern Orthodox and Express Artistic Creativity?

Can I be Eastern Orthodox and Express Artistic Creativity?


Recently I was asked whether it is possible to be an Eastern Orthodox creative artist, which surprised me. The person wrote that whenever he reads a current Orthodox article, it appears to be about monks, or about icon writing, or about chanting. He has read no recent article or blog post that points to anything else.

He has a point. As I reviewed recent blog posts, it can seem as though Orthodoxy is all about monks, icons, fasting, and chanting. But, that is a false appearance. Creativity is a strong part of Eastern Orthodoxy, and is found in the many authors, actors, and painters who are lauded and come from the fold of Eastern Orthodoxy.

For instance, in music, think of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. He not only wrote concertos, symphonies, operas, chamber music, and ballets, but also wrote a setting of the Divine Liturgy. His “1812 Overture” is played in many American cities and towns around July 4th.

In literature, who can forget Fyodor Dostoyevsky? His Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and Notes from the Underground, are regular high school and college assignments. The Orthodox love to quote from The Brothers Karamazov, even though Dostoyevsky did not have a high opinion of the Russian Orthodox priests found in Siberia.

There are also modern Orthodox involved in the arts. In Hollywood, one can find Margarita Ibrahimoff. But, you probably know her by her stage name of Rita Wilson. She is married to Thomas “Tom” Jefferson Hanks, who eventually became Eastern Orthodox after being married to her. But, they are not the only Orthodox actors and actresses. You may be surprised that Tina Fey is a Greek-American and was married in a Greek Orthodox parish.

Among current Orthodox writers are the columnist Terry Mattingly. It may surprise you to know that presidential spokesman George Stephanopoulos is a former altar boy and the son of a priest. Saint Innocent of Alaska wrote books on the Tlingit and worked on an alphabet for the Aleut.

George Tenet, the former CIA director, is a Greek Orthodox member. There are also other Orthodox members involved in both politics and government service at the highest levels.

Here is the problem that some have, but it is a problem that they should not have. Any time that anyone is involved in interacting with the world, one is bound to make mistakes, some of which are clearly sinful. We concentrate on the monks and the iconographers because we think that we do not have to deal with imperfection. But, they are imperfect also. I have yet to meet a monk or an iconographer who claimed perfection.

Because monks and iconographers work away from the world, we do not see their mistakes clearly. Because Orthodox creative artists work in the world, it is all too easy to see and criticize their actions, their works, the job they have performed, etc. But, we need to remember that God created us as creative as He is. We are called to express His creativity into the world as a witness that there is a Creative God who made us.

We need to encourage our children to not simply leave the world, as do monks and iconographers. We also need to encourage them to be creatively involved with the world, as do artists, writers, and actors. In doing so, we will take the risk that they will be tempted by the world, the flesh, and the devil. But, that is equally as true for those who become monks and iconographers, is it not? If the world never sees Orthodox creativity, they will never know that the Orthodox view of God includes creative artistry.

Sometimes, our creative children will stretch our limits. Sometimes, they will do things that will cause us to question their Christianity. The problem with artistically creative children is that they push boundaries. No, I am not in favor of an unquestioning acceptance of anything they do. But, I am saying that to encourage artistic creativity is to guarantee various in-depth discussions that would not be there were our children non-artistic.

For those of us who are priests, the challenge is even greater. When we have artistically creative members in our congregations, it will challenge us to evaluate what is permitted in the context of creativity. What happens if a member, who is an actor, is called upon to perform a role that portrays sinful behavior, in both word and deed? Yes, talking with actors can be a challenge for priests, especially finding where the line is that divides appropriate portrayal from sinful portrayal.

For many, it is easier to discourage artistic children. I suspect that many congregations would have a problem if an actor wished to become Orthodox. In one of the parishes to which my Metropolitan has sent me, there is an actress who is becoming Orthodox. She has portrayed characters in more than one horror film. I have seen photographs of her as a vampire, and in some other horror roles. She attends comic cons and other type of cons. She is a minor feature at some of them, and there are photographs of her with “booth babes” and with well-known actors who know her. Guiding her into Orthodoxy has certainly opened my eyes to the artistic lifestyle, and challenged some assumptions! But, after a year of attendance, it is clear that she desires Orthodoxy.

But, to finish answering the question that I received, yes, it is possible to be artistic and Orthodox. It simply requires that the congregation to which you belong is willing to enter into a genuine dialog with you. It requires that such a congregation be willing to stretch themselves to allow for artistic creativity. It also requires that you, as an artistic person, be willing to not take the position that if you want to do it, it must be correct. The good news is that Orthodoxy has a history of allowing artistic creativity to flow and flourish.

Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network.  You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.

About author

Fr. Ernesto Obregon

I am a Cuban. My sister and I arrived in the United States of America in 1961. I was nine years old at the time and my sister was five. Yes, alone. Our mother, a widow, put us on the plane in La Habana, and we were taken to an orphanage upon our arrival in Miami. No, I never lived in Miami for longer than about six months. Yes, we and our mother were re-united. She escaped from Cuba by boat about four or five months after we arrived in the USA. We were re-united and were sent by the Catholic Welfare folk to Ohio, where they had found my mother a job and us a foster home while she learned English and got situated. So, I grew up in Ohio, had a paper route, learned to build snowmen, and moved from place to place as out mother got better jobs. Eventually she met a good man and re-married and we settled into his house in Mansfield, Ohio. I was a 15-year-old teenager.

Needless to say, none of this was necessarily guaranteed to keep me strong in the faith, although my mother tried. I rebelled during my teenage years and left Roman Catholicism for some vague hippie philosophies and a lot of rebellion. By 1970 I had been expelled from college after my first year, a year in which I was very confused and quite directionless. When I returned to Mansfield in defeat, I was approached by a friend who had become a “Jesus Person.” He took me to this “farm” that was filled with about four middle-aged adults and lots of early 20′s Jesus People. One of those adults was a Southern Baptist pastor, a former Campus Crusade staffer, and uncomfortable supervisor of hippy Jesus People, and is now the Very Rev. Gordon Walker, an Archpriest of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese. His story, along with others whom I know, is chronicled in the book, “Becoming Orthodox” by the Very Rev. Peter Gillquist.

My journey was different. I eventually ended up as an Anglican priest, and a missionary. My wife and I served in both Bolivia and Perú, and our three intelligent and very perspicacious daughters spent a decade of their formative years in South America. I ended up as The Archdeacon of Arequipa of the Anglican Church of Perú, which is part of the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, which is part of the Anglican Communion.

We returned to the USA when our children began to attend college, and I took a parish in one of the dioceses of The Episcopal Church. Within less than four years, we realized that this was not a Church in which I could doctrinally live.

It was at this point that Fr. Gordon Walker came actively back into my life and told me that it was time that I came into Orthodoxy. He was right, and I have been Orthodox ever since. I was ordained in the Antiochian Orthodox jurisdiction, but am currently serving as an attached priest at a Greek Orthodox Church. God has blessed us. We have wonderful grandchildren. And we are truly blessed.