Book Review: Facing East, by Frederica Mathewes-Green
In all my years as a Christian reader, one thing I haven’t done much of is read about other forms of Christianity. It’s a curious fact which occurred to me while reading this book. For as deeply as I have thought about both my faith and the history of the church, I don’t know all that much about the mechanics of how various Christians express their belief and worship. Perhaps it’s because there is some part of me that thinks “Oh, why would I? I’m not converting to XYZ denomination.” That thought in and of itself is an odd one. I have read about other systems of belief, other sacred texts, with no intention of changing my personal faith. I dove deep into the Norse Eddas, for example, without feeling the need to worship Odin and Thor. I suppose this is yet another instance of me treating my faith differently than the rest of my life. I continue to find that mildly unsettling, but with no clear sense of how to resolve the issue.
I also find it mildly unsettling that I am nearly 200 words into this post and have yet to talk about the book at hand. But that’s what good books do, isn’t it? They make us think, not just about their content, but about our own lives. Indeed, as I worked my way through Mathewes-Green’s memoir of a growing faith, I found myself pondering my own journey along the Way.
What I like most about this book is how accessible it makes the world of Orthodox Christianity. Even having talked to people about Orthodoxy before, I was still left somewhat befuddled by the Byzantine nature of things (please forgive the pun, but, honestly, I had to do it). Mathewes-Green describes the ins and outs of the religion through the lens of a struggler, which serves to bring an air of simplification to the reader’s experience. Make no mistake, much of Orthodoxy is rigorously complex, but by regularly acknowledging that fact and expressing her own confusions, the author puts the reader at ease. This is essential, I think, for the book she was trying to write. In her postscript, Mathewes-Green talks about her desire to write “a ‘first step’ kind of book” (p. 240). By this she is referring to the first steps of someone considering conversion to Orthodoxy, or perhaps even the first steps of a new convert. That said, Facing East certainly appeals to a wider audience than those seeking out a new church.
The strength of this book lies in the author’s proficiency as a storyteller. Whatever her intentions, I find this to be much more a memoir than a theological treatise. Those parts where she is most enmeshed in the story, in the lives of her family and fellow parishioners, are the most engrossing. The language of many of her personal reflections is quite beautiful in its straight-ahead simplicity. For example, amidst recalling a particular kind of Orthodox prayer comes this:
“The past is a lot easier than the present. In the present I am cresting up to the front of the unknown every minute and feeling inadequate and feeling responsible for too many failures. Failures of kindness, failures of humility, failures of attention. It is a nervous, uncomfortable place to be. Most of the time I feel like I’m riding a bike over uneven ground, edgy, scanning for the next rock or rut or railroad track. If I could only get five minutes into the future before everyone else, it would be so much easier” (p. 102-3).
There’s nothing in there that presents much of an intellectual obstacle, but it contains an everyman, working class sort of philosophy which is both comforting and indicative of this Baltimore author’s home. There are only a few times when Mathewes-Green strays beyond herself and the small, vibrant community in which she lives. When she does, however, I think the story hits a pothole.
About the middle of the book, she recounts traveling to St. Louis for a speaking engagement. In the process, she visits a friend and editor, as well as his Presbyterian church. As she describes the service, she works hard to point out the points she appreciates and offer them in balance to her criticisms. It’s hard to miss, however, her clear sense that Orthodoxy is superior, more meaningful. Not more meaningful to her, but more meaningful period. I have no problem with her expressing this belief in the context of her experience; I knew what book I was picking up, after all. Rather, I am bothered by the language through which it comes. There is a certainty in this section that the Orthodox lens is the proper one through which to view Christianity. The implication is that other views are wrong, or at least of lesser value. I have seen this in other Orthodox writers, and it bugs me. To be fair, my hackles go up any time anyone tries to tell me that their way is the only way, and that is certainly not an attitude unique to Orthodoxy. The only exception, of course, is Jesus Himself. I do believe Him when He says that He is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6), but I am not yet sold on the idea that there is one, single way to Jesus.
All the same, moments like that pass relatively quickly, and they never so disrupted my reading that I felt inclined to abandon the book. In fact, Mathewes-Green elsewhere admits that she’s prone to a certain elitism, and such self-awareness made her more endearing as a narrator. Moreover, she did a solid job of holding my attention throughout. As she describes a year in her life, she vividly and fondly paints pictures of the delightful people in her church, keeping them human while still making them characters in their own right. It is easy, as a reader, to care about the small but growing band of Christians working to establish themselves as Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church. I did not feel a pull to convert to Orthodoxy, but I think Mathewes-Green is a strong enough writer and so beautifully describes her religion that many people have and will explore it thanks to this book.