Are the kids off to college? Or simply moving out on their own? Do they know what they’re getting into? Do you know what they’re getting into? Would you knowingly send your children off to scuba dive with empty air tanks?
The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving together Belief and Behavior during the University Years by Steven Garber (pub. InterVarsity Press) considers the plight of students—and the toll on their faith—through their college years and beyond. It also explores what they face when entering the “real world” of work and responsibility, and if they marry, the “valley of diapers.” The author consults academic rumination, parses artistic scenarios from literature, movies, and cartoons, and recounts real life stories from his own youth, his colleagues, and many, many students—often weeping with frustration and despair at the disjunction/dysfunction of faith and “reality.”
Garber observes that most people fall from their faith during these years, but among those who ably kept the faith, he finds three common, critical factors: Convictions, Character, and Community. Convictions he defines as a worldview robust enough to withstand the blows of modern (academic) and postmodern consciousness with its enforced secularization and pluralization. He uses the word Character to mean that a student should find a teacher who incarnates—actually lives—a right (righteous) worldview, in order to see, experience, assimilate how it’s done. Community involves seeking out, befriending, and committing to like-minded people.
Are these things to be found in the Orthodox Church? In one’s own parish? As for Convictions, are our youth—from early on—saying their morning and evening prayers? Are they learning Scripture so that they can identify misquotation, misunderstanding, and misdirection even from sincere, seemingly pious people? Are they reading/hearing Lives of Saints and other Church history so that, for example, in a high school World History class, they can perceive that the Holy Roman Empire is scornfully caricatured? That the educational establishment is not giving them the real information?
And so on, and so also with Character and Community—not just for college students but also for those who are leaving the nest and entering the “real world.”
But for those who are going to college—because it’s the expected thing, because it’s the fast-track to making lots of money, or because education seems the path to Social Justice—for whatever reason, for better understanding of and preparation for the academic endeavor, we highly recommend Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America by historian Page Smith (pub. Viking Penguin). Describing American academia through history and contemporary critique, it is an enjoyable, if unsettling, “educational” read for older teens and adults. A slower-paced, more narrowly-focused but gratifying meditation is Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America (pub. Oxford University Press). This book is an insider’s (re)consideration of the academic ethos and collegiality (Character and Community) and direction (specialist vs. generalist, data vs. wisdom). It also suggests that undergraduates may find small colleges more beneficial than universities.
A brief diversion. An Orthodox church we know of had a “map” of the icons on the iconostasis and around the walls, a brochure that provided for each icon a thumbnail photo and thumbnail life or explanation. The thumbnail introduction proclaimed, “The First Iconographer: The Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke. His first subject: the Mother of God.” The brochure also listed related books available in the church library.
As it happens, there is a Protestant Bible college nearby that encourages its students to visit and observe the various, neighboring churches. When the students visited the Orthodox church, all were given the icon brochure. The very next day, the president of the college sent out a clamorous memo to the entire student body, vociferating that icons have no place in the church—or some such nonsense—and saints, etc. Obviously, the brochure struck a nerve. It was never the intention behind the brochure to “get the Protestants.” In fact, the point of giving the brochure to the students was compassion, throwing them a lifeline. 1) They are young. 2) They are hungry for God. 3) They don’t know any better. Why else would they be attending a Protestant Bible college?
In the first year of college, students may be so caught up in socializing, freedom from parental interference, the wide range of introductory courses, and perhaps for the first time learning to study, that questions of faith may not arise. Still, it may be helpful to students to know lives of saints, like Basil the Great (Jan 1) and Ambrose of Milan (Dec 7). It is helpful for them to see that secular studies can indeed be put to use to build up the Church. It is good to understand the Prophet Daniel and the Three Holy Youths (Dec 17, Dan 1 and 3), to see that Orthodox students need not behave as the other students nor worship their gods. It is important to understand Saint Gregory the Wonderworker, Bishop of Neo-Caesarea (Nov 17), to see that there is nothing new about studying in an environment hostile to Christians.
At least as important, are our youth aware that the Orthodox understanding of knowledge is beyond a university professor’s wildest imagination? Saint Justin Popovich describes this very thing in his essay, “The Theory of Knowledge of Saint Isaac the Syrian.” The article is available in English in two anthologies of Saint Justin’s works: Man and the God-Man (pub. Sebastian Press); and Orthodox Faith and Life in Christ, edited by Father Asterios Gerostergios (pub. Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies). We prefer the latter if only because it also contains Saint Justin’s essay, “The Inward Mission of Our Church,” a compelling course correction for many Orthodox in America and overseas.
An abridged version of The Theory of Knowledge is available in Hungry Orthodox Christian Reader (pub. OGLA Press), a book that would be helpful to the college-bound (older youth groups could greatly benefit), the college-bounded (college students who are beginning to ask questions and need serious answers), and also for those bounding beyond college into the murk of the “real world.”
Should it come up in collegial socializing or real world fraternizing, how would our young people reply to the question, “What is the Orthodox Church?” or “What is Orthodoxy?” If the question is asked seriously and by a serious reader, the response could include a suggestion to read the long-established, “go-to” introductory book, the venerable and all-season The Orthodox Church by Metropolitan Kallistos (Timothy Ware, pub. Penguin Books). If more is wanted, more of an insider view, the follow-up could reasonably be Hungry Orthodox Christian Reader, because it samples a broad spectrum of Orthodox writings and emphatically points to their sources for further reading and study—a handy resource, by the way, for Orthodox as well as non-Orthodox.
A final question (worth 10 points). What were Saints Justin Popovich (Mar 25) and Nicolas Velimirovich (Mar 5) doing to generate such great enthusiasm for and commitment to Orthodoxy among the Serbian people? And why did this upset others within the Church?
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