Gillian Crow, Orthodoxy for Today (review)

Gillian Crow, Orthodoxy for Today (London: SPCK, 2009), 160 pp.

Gillian Crow, the biographer of the late Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (Anthony Bloom), has in this new book followed a “Bloomian” line of argumentation. (Her earlier book was This Holy Man: Impressions of Metropolitan Anthony, published in 2006 by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press of Crestwood, New York.) Here she has tried to oppose the stereotype of Orthodoxy as an obscure and ossified artifact, stuck in the past and of no relevance to the contemporary hunger and search for spirituality and meaning. Instead, she seeks to present Orthodoxy in a way that Bloom himself often did: as an encounter with the living God, who initiated the encounter with people and patiently awaits our response. The goal of this book, then, is to present Orthodoxy as “bold, appealing, intellectually and spiritually challenging – and demanding” (3).

Crow’s style is commensurate with her goal: she does not write from a defensive posture atop a barricade. Neither does she give us an abstract justification of the truth of Orthodoxy. Rather, she seeks to emphasize that Orthodoxy is about a sincere and personal relationship with Christ. The book is divided into eight chapters. The opening chapters give a general overview of the history of Orthodoxy; chapter four discusses the vocation of humans to sanctity through the examples of the Theotokos and saints; chapter five discusses the liturgical calendar and also fasting, which Crow portrays as a chance for believers to be reminded physically of a spiritual hunger for God. The sixth chapter discusses the fall in terms that reveal the daily struggle we all have in fighting to defeat evil and to become like God. The seventh chapter deals with sacraments and prayer, and the last chapter presents liturgy as “heaven on earth.”

The weakest part is its historical overview. In the second chapter of the book, Crow offers a shallow overview of the Ecumenical Councils before moving quickly to the twentieth century – with brief mention, along the way, of the Fourth Crusade, the fall of Constantinople, and the Russian Revolution in 1917. Also it seems that Crow does not distinguish between Rus’ and Russia, mentioning, e.g., on p.24, Vladimir’s conversion in 988 and that of his people leading “eventually … [to] the Russian empire.” That overlooks the fact that “R-is”‘ has historically described the territory of Ukraine, Russia, and Belorussia.

The author’s handling of the schism of 1054 is balanced and fair. She notes that misunderstandings began earlier “when Greek-speakers and Latin-speakers no longer learned each other’s language” (18) but the schism was not, “as it is commonly misunderstood, the Orthodox splitting off from the mainstream Catholics, or vice versa, but the two halves of one Church separating, each deeming the other heretical” (25).

Crow’s balance is off, however, in her handling of the whole notion of the filioque. Here she presents the standard Orthodox critique, but offers no understanding of what the Latin position was, or of the serious reason (Spanish Arianism) for its introduction. She has also ignored the crucial 1995 Vatican declaration on the issue. That declaration very much needs to be more widely read and understood by the Orthodox but also by Catholics.

In sum, this is a generally good but not perfect introduction for general readers. Those seeking a more scholarly work will need to look elsewhere. Even general readers will, however, find some aspects of this book a bit confusing, especially the layout of chapters, where some things are disjointed or briefly mentioned in one chapter, dropped, and then resumed several chapters later, making it difficult to form a coherent picture of each topic. This scattershot approach makes sense in some ways, but makes for frustrating reading in others as one must flip back and forth to get the whole picture. Moreover, she is sometimes too quick to compare Orthodox beliefs and practices with Protestant or Catholic ones – even before she has adequately explicated the Orthodox position. This may reflect the fact that Crow is a convert to the Orthodox Church. As such, she is reluctant to criticize anything within the Orthodox Church, though she does make one exception: Crow objects to the rule forbidding women from entering the altar of a church.

In the end, this book stands out from other recent introductions to Orthodoxy by the clear emphasis Crow places on the contemporary relevance of Orthodox teachings, which are held up as an answer to many of the world’s questions of today. Crow’s exposition of those answers reminds us – as Metropolitan Anthony so often did, by words and actions alike – that the truth we seek is ultimately a person, Jesus Christ, who does not overwhelm us with logic but invites us in love to an everlasting relationship with the Triune God.

Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies

Vol. 51 (2010) Nos. 1–2, pp. 175-178


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