Defending older truths: Rod Dreher, Albert Mohler and St. Benedict in conversation

Defending older truths: Rod Dreher, Albert Mohler and St. Benedict in conversation

Journalist Rod Dreher used to find comfort when seeing rows of churches along roads in his home state of Louisiana.

The world might be going crazy in places like New York City and Washington, D.C. -- where Dreher had worked as a journalist -- but it felt good to know the Bible Belt still existed.

But that changed as the popular digital scribe -- his weblog at The American Conservative gets a million-plus hits a month -- kept digging into research about life inside most of those churches. The bottom line: There's a reason so many young Americans say they have zero ties to any faith tradition.

"God is not the center of American culture or of Western civilization anymore. But it's easy to think that this is alarmist when you look around you, especially if you live in the South as I do and see churches everywhere," said Dreher, during a podcast with R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ken. Mohler is an influential voice at all levels of the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Protestant flock.

"Go inside those churches," stressed Dreher. "Talk to the people about what they know about the historic Christian faith. You'll often find it's very, very thin. … And I think that the loss of faith among the elites in society is huge. Christianity is now a minority position and in many places at the highest levels of our society … orthodox Christianity is considered bigotry. This is not going to get any better."

It's easy for conservatives to bemoan public trends, such as amoral Hollywood sermons, the U.S. Supreme Court's same-sex marriage decision and corporate giants backing the gender-blending of bathrooms and showers. However, some of the most sobering remarks by Mohler and Dreher were about Christian homes, schools and sanctuaries.

At the center of the conversation was Dreher's new book, "The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation," which debuted at No. 7 on the New York Times bestseller list, while sparking fierce debates online.

Apocalyptic visions about Chernobyl

KIEV -- The apocalyptic visions begin just inside the doors of the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum and many of them lead straight into the Book of Revelation. The final pages of Christian scripture are full of angels, trumpets, flames, thunder, lighting, earthquakes and catastrophes that shake heaven and earth.

In this museum, the key is in the eighth chapter: "And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters. And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter."

When Ukrainians translate "wormwood" into their own language it becomes "chernobyl." It's easy to connect the two when discussing the legacy of pain that followed the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl Power Station north of Kiev, when explosions and fires at the reactor core released a plume of radioactive debris that drifted over Russian and into Europe.

Soviet officials claim a mere 31 died. Ukrainians mock this number, saying it's impossible to calculate the long-term fallout in cancers, birth defects and other forms of human suffering.

"The catastrophe at Chernobyl station took its victims before their time," said Archpriest Andrei Tkachev of St. Agapit of Pechersk Orthodox Church in Kiev. "Man is supposed to meet death in his own time, when he has a chance to prepare to meet God. That kind of death is a gift from God -- a good death.

"That is not what happened for many of the victims of Chernobyl."

The museum opened on April 26, 1992, the fifth anniversary of the disaster and soon after the Soviet Union's collapse. The exhibits include 7,000 artifacts from the 76 towns and villages -- with 76 churches, in this historically Orthodox culture -- that were razed in the radiation-tainted resettlement zone.

The door into a large chamber dedicated to the families and children of Chernobyl leads to the church iconostasis, with a radiation suit hanging in place of the Archangel Michael and barbed wire and a contamination sign blocking the way to the altar. High overhead is an icon of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of endangered children.

The altar is gone, replaced by a boat -- to carry souls over the waters of death -- full of children's toys. Under the boat, the blackness is full of the icons of saints.

The Chernobyl disaster was especially poignant, said Tkachev, because it struck a region that for many symbolized the innocence and safety of the past.

"The people here were simple people. They didn't have writers and journalists to tell their stories," he said. "This is an attempt to tell their story, using what they left behind when they were forced to flee the homes, their schools and their churches. ...

"Modern life separates a man who has deep faith from a man who has little. In these villages, life and faith was simply combined and you can see that here."

In one of the starkest images -- over a map of the stricken region -- the melting reactor literally shatters a famous icon of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child, while an apocalyptic storm swirls around her.

"We are tempted to think that fire and water and all the elements of nature are at our command, but that is not true," said Tkachev, outside the final exhibit hall. "We can become victims. ... The more technologies are in our lives, the more danger there is that we become their servants, even their slaves."

The archpriest stroked his beard, thinking of another way of stating the ultimate message of this sobering tribute to lessons learned at Chernobyl.

Finally he offered a litany of simple images.

If a man builds a bicycle and it breaks while he is riding it, then he will be hurt when he falls, said Tkachev. If he builds an airplane and it breaks, this man will almost certainly die when it crashes.

"Now, if we build a nuclear reactor in our back yard and it breaks, then the catastrophe will kill many and it may last into future generations," he said. "What this teaches us is that we must fear God and try to be humble about the things that we build with our own hands."

Orthodoxy in an American elevator

There is nothing unusual about a priest who is dressed in clerical garb having a stranger ask him a religious question during a long airline flight. "You ask a guy where he's from and what he does and then he asks you the same thing. Many people just want to talk," explained Father John David Finley, a missionary priest in the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

The man in the next seat recently asked the priest a question he has heard many times: "What is Orthodox Christianity, anyway?"

Ironically, Finley was -- at that moment -- writing some comments about a contest in which participants prepared a 30-second "elevator speech" response to strangers who asked that very question. The contest was organized by the archdiocesan Department of Missions and Evangelism, Finley's home base.

This particular man was a convert to Buddhism, although he was raised in a home that was Christian, to one degree or another. He was interested in how different churches interpret scripture and how Eastern Christians pray.

"He wanted to talk about icons," said Finley. "He thought they were beautiful, but he also knew there was more to icons than wood and paint. He said, 'They're not just pictures, right? There's more to icons than art, right?' ... What you hear in questions like that is a search for beauty and mystery and spiritual power."

The term "elevator speech" comes from the business world and describes a punchy presentation of what a company does and "what it's all about," said Howard Lange, administrator of the missions and evangelism office. The idea of a national contest emerged from discussions in his parish, St. Athanasius Orthodox Church, near Santa Barbara, Calif.

"The idea is to convey the essence of your organization to someone in two or three sentences, in the short time that you're on an elevator or maybe in a grocery store checkout line," he said.

This is a hard task for all religious leaders in the increasingly diverse arena of 21st century American life. However, this challenge is especially hard for Eastern Orthodox leaders in a land shaped by Protestant history and culture, as well as the rising influence of Catholics from around the world.

Americans know, or think they know, what people believe in Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist or Episcopal pews. But for many, the first word that comes to mind when they hear "Orthodoxy" is "baklava."

When Protestants talk about church, they usually jump into discussions of their preacher's pulpit skills, their children's programs, the excellence of their classical, gospel or rock musicians and other selling points. The Orthodox (I know this from experience, as a convert) need to back up a millennium or two and cover basics. Then there are the complicated -- literally byzantine -- histories of the churches in Palestine, Greece, Russia, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Ukraine and, yes, even in lands such as North America.

The goal of the "elevator speech" contest, said Lange, was to focus on broad strokes, using language outsiders could understand -- while not oversimplifying to the point of inaccuracy. The winning entry, selected through an online ballot, stated:

"Orthodox Christianity is the authentic and original Christian Faith founded by Jesus Christ," wrote Valerie Ann Zrake of New York City. "As an Orthodox Christian you can experience heaven on earth through the Divine Liturgy which is mystical, spiritual and beautiful, with it's incense, icons, and sacred music. You can transcend time and space while you meditate upon the words and teachings of Jesus Christ. It's the most pure form of Christianity -- nothing artificial added. It's the real deal."

Even in this simple statement, it was hard to avoid nuanced language. "Divine Liturgy," for example, is the Eastern rite name for what, in the West, would be called the Mass. That reference would stump many seekers.

The bottom line, said Lange, is that there is no one ideal "elevator speech" to introduce faiths that are as ancient and complex as Orthodoxy. What works with a next-door neighbor who is already a churchgoer would not work with a skeptical graduate student who walks in the door ready to argue.

"You have to be able to relate to the person who is standing in front of you," he said. "If this contest got Orthodox people to start thinking about that, then it did some good. It's a start."

Orthodox bridge to evangelical world

As point man for Russian Orthodox relations with other faith groups, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev is used to talking shop with Catholics, Anglicans, leaders in older brands of Protestantism and other world religions. These duties have long been part of his job description. Meeting with leaders from the world's booming evangelical and Pentecostal flocks?

Not so much.

However, recent ecumenical contacts by this high-profile representative of the Moscow Patriarchate is evidence that times are changing. Time after time, during meetings with evangelical leaders and others here in America, Hilarion has stressed that it is time for Orthodox leaders to cooperate with traditional Catholics, evangelical Protestants and others who are trying to defend ancient moral truths in the public square.

"I am here in order to find friends and in order to find allies in our common combat to defend Christian values," said the 44-year-old archbishop, who became a monk after serving in the Soviet army. He also speaks six languages, holds an Oxford University doctorate in philosophy and is an internationally known composer of classical music.

For too long, Orthodox leaders have remained silent. The goal now, he said, is to find ways to cooperate with other religious groups that want to "keep the traditional lines of Christian moral teaching, who care about the family, who care about such notions as marital fidelity, as giving birth to and bringing up children and in the value of human life from conception until natural death."

On this occasion earlier in the year, Hilarion was preaching from the pulpit of the 5,000-member Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, a conservative congregation that remains part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which recently approved the ordination of noncelibate gays, lesbians and bisexuals.

While in Dallas, Metropolitan Hilarion's public schedule included meetings at Dallas Theological Seminary, a prominent institution among many of America's most conservative evangelical leaders. He has also, during the first half of the year, met with nationally known evangelical leaders in New York, Washington, D.C., and at Princeton University.

In a recent interview with Christianity Today, one of evangelicalism's flagship publications, the archbishop said it is crucial for all churches -- including Eastern Orthodox churches -- to expand their work into public life, even if this creates controversy in some quarters.

"Very often nowadays our church will publicly express positions on what's happening in the country," he said. "Some people ask, 'Why does the church interfere? It's not their business.' We believe that the church can express its opinion on all aspects of human life. We do not impose our opinions on the people, but we should be free to express them. And people will have to choose whether to follow or not to follow, whether to listen to what we say or to ignore it."

The archbishop's statements were especially significant and timely because of a related conflict now raging in the Orthodox Church in America, which has Russian roots.

A major cause of the controversy was the decision by the church's leader, Metropolitan Jonah Paffhausen, to privately endorse The Manhattan Declaration, a document produced by a coalition of conservative Christians that focuses on abortion, euthanasia, sexual morality and religious liberty issues. Numerous Catholic bishops and several other Orthodox leaders have also signed as private citizens, not in their roles as church officials.

At the very least, this bitter dispute has demonstrated that some OCA leaders are opposed to public stands on hot-button political issues, especially any that proclaim the church's teachings on sexuality. Some prefer isolation and silence.

However, Metropolitan Hilarion, in his taped sermon in Dallas, said it is shocking to see churches divided by "what hitherto seemed unthinkable -- namely marked differences among Christians in their understanding of moral law. ... There has surfaced a desire to revise, or to be more precise, to adjust, the unambiguous commandments of God to any manifestation of human fancy, a trend that has spread out with the speed of a cancer. ...

"Maybe this is one of the reasons why so many families break, why so many marriages end up with divorce, why so many children are raised without a father or a mother and why the birthrates in many countries have become so low. ... Family is no longer a primary value to many young people. This is a tragedy of our times and this is a challenge that we can face together."

Real, live, postmodern preacher

The Rev. Gordon Atkinson had few specific goals when he started planning his 13-week sabbatical from his duties at Covenant Baptist Church near San Antonio. "I knew that I didn't want to be in charge of anything," said Atkinson, long known as the "Real, Live, Preacher" to those who read his intensely personal online journal (reallivepreacher.com).

"Preachers talk and talk and I wanted to get away from that. I didn't want to be a worship tourist, but I thought it would be refreshing to worship in some places where I was the person in the room who knew the least about what was going on."

It helps to know that Atkinson leads an unusual Baptist flock, a "contemplative Christian community" that holds spiritual retreats based on the writings of St. Francis of Assisi and men's fellowship meetings over beer and pizza. Covenant's belief statement stresses that the "fullness of the gospel cannot be contained in any one church."

While proud of his Baptist heritage, Atkinson said the "glory days" when "moderate" and "conservative" Baptists fought to control the old corporate machinery are long gone. Now, many congregations are experimenting with "emerging," "post-denominational" and "postmodern" identities and forms of worship.

Thus, Atkinson began his sabbatical by visiting the radical stillness of a Quaker gathering, a tradition that asks believers to remain silent until God inspires someone to speak. For 30 minutes, every cough, sneeze or stomach growl was audible.

"You have to lose a lot of your shame when you sit in silence with people," he wrote. "These sounds are not disturbing to the time of worship. Not at all. They are the delightful sounds of humans trying to be quiet. And we cannot. ... So even the sounds of people trying to be quiet are a part of the lesson."

A few Sundays later, Atkinson found himself swimming in words and symbols when his family visited an Eastern Orthodox sanctuary.

"It was like they were ripping raw chunks of theology out of ancient creeds and throwing them by the handfuls into the congregation," he wrote. "I heard words and phrases I had not heard since seminary. Theotokos, begotten not made, Cherubim and Seraphim borne on their pinions, supplications and oblations."

The experience, he concluded, was an "ADD kid's nightmare," with the "robes, scary art, smoking incense, secret doors in the Iconostas popping open and little robed boys coming out with golden candlesticks, chants and singing from a small choir that rolled across the curved ceiling. ... There was so much going on I couldn't keep up with all the things I couldn't pay attention to."

His family struggled, but Atkinson had tears in his eyes by the end of the nearly two-hour liturgy. After years of focusing on user-friendly ways to attract people to church, he was stunned to attend a service that -- much like the Quaker meeting -- placed intense demands on all the participants.

It was, he concluded, as if visitors were being told: "You don't know what Theotokos means? Get a book and read about it. You have a hard time standing for two hours? Do some sit ups and get yourself into worship shape. It is the Lord our God we worship here, mortal. ... THIS IS BIGGER THAN YOU ARE."

Atkinson was intrigued and eventually attended Russian, Greek and Antiochian Orthodox churches.

Nevertheless, by the end of his sabbatical this liberal Baptist preacher knew he had a problem. While Atkinson appreciated the symbols, rituals and sacraments he encountered, he also knew that he couldn't accept the doctrines that defined the worship, especially the Orthodox rites.

Simply stated, his views on sin, sexuality, salvation, heaven and hell were too modern. There was "no wiggle room" in the ancient doctrines and, Atkinson concluded, "I just couldn't buy all of it."

Now he is returning to his Baptist pulpit, while hearing choirs of voices arguing in his head representing many different eras of church history.

"What I don't know how to do is rank all of these voices and decide who has authority," he said. "Who is right and who is wrong? ... And I want to know, where does Gordon Atkinson fit into this whole picture? I know that I can't go back to the old Protestant, evangelical way that I was, but I don't know where I'm supposed to go now. This is a problem."

Walking in St. Tikhon's footsteps

It didn't take long for controversy to spread about the photograph taken after the consecration rites in 1900 for a new bishop in Wisconsin. Low-church Episcopalians called it the "Fond du Lac Circus" because of all the ornate vestments. Not only was Bishop Charles Chapman Grafton, who presided, wearing a cope and mitre, but so were the other bishops. Then there were was the exotic visitor on the edge of the photograph -- Bishop Tikhon of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Imagine the outrage if Tikhon had, as discussed beforehand, decided to take part in the laying on of hands at the moment of consecration. After years of service in America, the missionary later hailed as St. Tikhon of Moscow returned home and became patriarch, dying in 1925 after years of tensions with the new Communist regime.

St. Tikhon had "a vision, a vision of unity," said Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America, during recent events marking the birth of an alternative, conservative Anglican province in America. Early in the 20th century, some Orthodox leaders were willing to accept the "validity of Anglican orders," meaning they believed that Anglican clergy were truly priests and bishops in the ancient, traditional meanings of those words.

"It fell apart. It fell apart on the Anglican side, with the affirmation more of a Protestant identity than a Catholic identity," said Jonah, at the inaugural assembly of the Anglican Church in North America, held in Bedford, Texas.

"We need to pick up where they left off. The question has been: Does that Anglican church, which came so close to being declared by the other Orthodox churches a fellow Orthodox church, does that still exist?"

A voice in the crowd shouted, "It does!"

"Here, it does," agreed Metropolitan Jonah, stressing the word "here."

Thus, the Orthodox leader announced that he is willing to walk in St. Tikhon's footsteps by opening an ecumenical dialogue with this new body of conservative Anglicans, years after similar talks collapsed after the decision by Episcopalians to ordain women as priests and then as bishops.

The Orthodox and modern Episcopalians disagree on many other issues, from the authority of scripture to the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals as priests and bishops. These are the same issues that caused the creation of the conservative Anglican Church in North America, which has been recognized by many Anglican traditionalists in the Third World, but not by the hierarchy of the Church of England.

However, Jonah also focused attention on doctrinal issues that continue to cause tensions among the very conservatives he faced in Texas.

"I'm afraid my talk will have something to offend just about everybody," said the former Episcopalian, who was raised in an Anglo-Catholic parish before converting to Orthodoxy.

For example, "Calvinism is a condemned heresy," he said, and there are "other heresies that came in through the Reformation which have to be rejected" -- words that strike at the heart of the vital, growing Protestant wing of global Anglicanism. Jonah also stressed that, "For a full restoration and intercommunion of the Anglican Church with the Orthodox Church, the issue of ordination of women has to be resolved." The Anglican Church in North America has agreed to allow its dioceses to reach their own conclusions on this issue.

The tension in the room was real, but so was the appreciation for this gesture by the man who, literally, is the successor of St. Tikhon, said the Rev. George Conger, a Calvinist Anglican and correspondent for The Church of England Newspaper.

"What made much of what Metropolitan Jonah said palatable to the ACNA convocation was his transparent good will, and wry sense of humor," said Conger. "The phrase 'hard words said in love' is often trite, but Jonah's remarks ... were given and heard in this vein."

One the other side of this dialogue, Orthodox leaders are more than aware of the obstacles created by decades of tumultuous change in the Anglican Communion, said Father Alexander Golubov, academic dean of St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary in South Canaan, Pa.

"Metropolitan Jonah will be trying to walk a thin line, but it is the same line that St. Tikhon tried to walk long ago," said Golubov. "Some of the issues he will face are the same. But there are issues he will face today that I do not believe anyone could have ever anticipated. We live in strange times."

Religion ghosts in Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- Merely saying the forest's name -- Bykivnya -- can cause strong emotions for millions of Ukrainians.

This is where the secret police of Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin buried 100,000 of their victims between 1937 and 1941 in a mass grave northeast of Kiev. President Victor Yushchenko did not mince words during his recent speech there, on Ukraine's Day of Remembrance for Victims of Political Repression.

"Here, at Bykivnya, Stalin and his monstrous hangmen killed the bloom of Ukraine. There is no forgiveness and there will be none," he told several thousand mourners and, of course, Ukrainian journalists.

The mourners wept, while processing through the site behind Orthodox clergy who carried liturgical banners containing iconic images of Jesus and Mary.

"Because of the national symbolism of this ceremony, the priests there may not be important," said Victor Yelensky, a sociologist of religion associated with the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences. "But the priests have to be there because this is Ukraine and this is a ceremony that is about a great tragedy in the history of Ukraine.

"So the priests are there. It is part ... of a civil religion."

This is where the story gets complicated. In the Ukrainian media, photographs and video images showed the clergy, with their dramatic banners and colorful vestments. However, in their reporting, journalists never mentioned what the clergy said or did.

Media reports also failed to mention which Orthodoxy body or bodies were represented. This is an important gap, because of the tense and complicated nature of the religious marketplace in this historically Eastern Orthodox culture.

It would have been big news, for example, if clergy from the giant Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) -- with direct ties to Moscow -- had taken part in a ceremony that featured Yushchenko, who, as usual, aimed angry words to the north.

But what if the clergy were exclusively from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate), born after the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 and linked to declarations of Ukrainian independence? What if there were also clergy from a third body, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, born early in the 20th century?

A rite featuring clergy from one or both of these newer churches also would have been symbolic. After all, these days almost anything can create tensions between Ukraine and Russia, from natural gas prices to efforts to emphasize the Ukrainian language, from exhibits of uniquely Ukrainian art to decisions about which statues are torn down (almost anything Soviet) or which statues are erected (such as one of Ivan Mazepa, labeled a traitor by Russia after his 18th century efforts to boost Ukrainian independence).

But it's hard for Ukrainian journalists to ask these kinds of questions and print what they learn when people answer them, according to a circle of journalists -- secular and religious -- at a Kiev forum last week focusing on trends in religion news in their nation. I was one of the speakers, along with another colleague from the Oxford Centre for Religion & Public Life.

As in America, Ukrainian journalists often assume that politics is the only faith that matters in life. The journalists in Kiev also said that they struggle to escape unwritten Soviet-era rules stating that religion was bad, irrelevant or, at best, merely private. Many journalists lack historical knowledge required to do accurate coverage of religion, while others simply do not care, because they shun organized religion.

"Many would say that, if we do not play the violin, we really should not attempt to comment on how others play the violin," said Yuri Makarov, editor in chief of Ukrainian Week, speaking through a translator.

This blind spot is unfortunate, because Ukrainian journalists may have missed a crucial piece of the Bykivnya story, said Yelensky. It's hard to understand the soul of Ukraine without grasping the power of religion.

"For many Orthodox people in western Ukraine, it is simply unacceptable to live in any way under the leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate. At the same time, for many Orthodox in eastern Ukraine, it is simply unacceptable to not to be associated and in communion with the Moscow Patriarchate. In the middle are places like Kiev. ...

"This is a division that is inside Ukrainian society. Is it based on religion? No. Is religion right there in the heart of it? Yes."

The monster was not hiding in church

For a dozen years, they hunted Europe's most notorious war criminal.

Investigators knew exactly where they thought they would find former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, the man accused of masterminding the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica.

After his July 21 arrest, most media reports echoed vague statements in The New York Times in which unidentified voices said Karadzic "eluded arrest so long by shaving his swoopy gray hair and disguising himself as a Serbian Orthodox priest. He reportedly hid out in caves in the mountains of eastern Bosnia and in monasteries."

"Of course they were wrong," said Metropolitan Christopher, leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church in North and South America. "It was not true, to say that the Serbian church was hiding him. It appears that he was living right there in clear view, practicing alternative forms of medicine in front of everybody."

The Times updated its first report, adding that for "some of those years" the fugitive lived under an assumed name in Belgrade. A second-day report conceded that Karadzic "was not in a distant monastery or a dark cave when caught at last, but living in Serbia's capital."

Instead of shaving his photogenic silver hair and pretending to be a priest, the former president of the Bosnian Serb mini-state had built a new identity based on his career as a psychologist -- becoming Dr. Dragan David Dabic, expert on meditation, unorthodox therapy techniques and herbal treatments from the East. He was, observers said, a self-made guru with dashes of Freud, a Bohemian poet who resembled Santa Claus, complete with a bushy white beard and long hair, including a ponytail. He published journal articles, gave public lectures and lived with a young mistress.

Blend all that together and, according to ABC News, what you get is an "Orthodox mystic."

"It's like that old saying that you can't fight city hall," said Metropolitan Christopher, in frustration. Journalists and outsiders "want to link all of this to the Serbian Orthodox Church. And they want to say that all Serbs, everywhere, are guilty of the actions of these violent men and that, most of all, the Serbs are the only people who have ever done these terrible things to their neighbors. ...

"They forget that men like Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic were enemies of the church and used violence against the Orthodox, too. Our bishops were jailed and beaten for opposing the regime behind this violence."

As the Serbian Orthodox bishops proclaimed, at one of the worst moments in the fighting, the "way of non-violence and cooperation is the only way blessed by God in agreement with human and divine moral law and experience."

There was also an interfaith appeal for peace in 1999, signed by Orthodox Patriarch Pavle, Catholic Archbishop Franc Perko, Mufti Hamdija Jusufspahic and Rabbi Isak Asiel. It called for a total ceasefire and the return of all refuges -- Serbs, Albanians and Croats -- to their homes.

"Even as evil cannot be overcome by evil, so peace and harmony cannot be attained by war," said that statement from Belgrade. "To be a peacemaker is the greatest duty and most noble obligation of every man. That is why we are not afraid to be the first to extend the hand of peace to one another."

Hardly anyone was listening.

Truth is, Orthodox Christianity does play a major role in defining the history and identity of the Serbs. It is also true that Orthodox leaders have opposed the break up of their homeland and, in particular, the loss of Kosovo -- a state containing more than 1,000 historic churches and monasteries. Serbs have pled with Western officials to intervene and stop the destruction of many priceless sanctuaries.

The lines between faith and ethnicity are often blurred in the Balkans. In this violent, splintered and ravaged region, Karadzic -- who remains a hero to Serb radicals -- may have found refuge for some period of time with the help of some priests or monks, acting on their own.

"We hear accusations against Orthodox people, but we never seem to hear who, what, when and where," said Metropolitan Christopher. "If it's true, we need to know facts. But it is wrong for the media to keep making vague accusations against our whole church in this way, which only makes things worse for those who have endured so much."

Beyond Easter candy bargains

If there's one thing other Christians know about the ancient churches of the East it is that Orthodox believers usually get to buy their Easter candy at closeout prices.

This year, the gap between the two Easter dates was so large -- five weeks -- that the leftover chocolate eggs had been cleaned out by April 27 and the great Orthodox feast called Pascha (Greek for "Passover").

"It's true that when the Easters are not together, we don't have to deal with the whole Hallmark Card, Easter bunny side of things," said Father Alexander Rentel, professor of Byzantine Studies at St. Vladimir's Seminary in Crestwood, N.Y. "That we're on a different schedule can make it easier to for us to concentrate on what we're supposed to be concentrating on -- which is what the season means in the first place."

Why are the dates for Easter and Pascha usually different? The short answer is that all the Eastern Orthodox churches use the ancient Julian calendar when calculating the date for this season, while the Western church began using the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century. A more complex answer is to say that, for the Orthodox, Pascha is the first Sunday after the first full moon that comes after the vernal equinox and after the Jewish Passover.

The bottom line, however, is that the Julian and Gregorian calendars are about 13 days apart and this gap will continue growing at the rate of about a week per millennium.

All of that can be hard to explain, noted Rentel, when a child at school hands another child an invitation to an Easter party.

"One kid says, 'Happy Easter!' and then your kid says, 'Actually, we haven't celebrated Easter yet.' Then the other kid says, 'Why not?' and then that leads off into all kinds of conversations that can either be good or bad, depending on how comfortable your children are when they're talking about what they believe and why."

In other words, he said, answering questions about why your church celebrates Easter on a different Sunday is similar to answering questions about why your family fasts from meat and dairy for long periods of time, or why you go to confession, or why you make the sign of the cross and pray before eating lunch in the school cafeteria. Any strong belief that clashes with the surrounding culture is going to lead to questions.

"These are questions about who we really are," said Rentel.

Identity questions can be especially complex for the Orthodox in North America. There are 250 million Orthodox believers worldwide -- the second largest Christian church -- but only 5 million in the United States. The Orthodox flock in the "new world" remains divided into a dozen jurisdictions, each with ethnic and historical ties to a mother church abroad.

Thus, there are times when it's hard to draw a line between ethnic traditions and Orthodox traditions. It's easy for the rites of Holy Pascha to turn into My Big Fat Greek -- or Russian, or Lebanese, or Bulgarian -- Easter. Someday, the parishes founded by converts into Orthodoxy (like my own near Baltimore) may be tempted to celebrate My Big Fat Ex-Evangelical Protestant Easter. It could happen.

What the Orthodox call the "small t" traditions are important, said Rentel. The family baskets packed with holiday foods, the blood-red eggs, the joyous dances and the other ties that bind are important. But what cannot be sacrificed are the "Big T" traditions found in the 500-plus pages of prayers, scriptures and rituals that guide the spiritual journey from Palm Sunday to Holy Pascha.

The final sermon is always the same -- year after year, century after century -- no matter where Pascha services are held. All Orthodox priests, by tradition, read the Easter sermon of St. John Chrysostom, which dates to about 400 AD. As the sermon ends, the preacher called "the golden mouthed" summed everything up:

"O death, where is thy sting? O hell, where is thy victory?

"Christ is risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!

"Christ is risen, and the evil ones are cast down!

"Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!

"Christ is risen, and life is liberated!

"Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;?for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep."