From Texas Baptist to Orthodox saint?

Wherever bishops travel, churches plan lavish banquets and other solemn tributes to honor their hierarchs.

Visitations by Archbishop Dmitri Royster of the Orthodox Church in America were different, since the faithful in the 14-state Diocese of the South knew that one memorable event would take care of itself. All they had to do was take their leader to a children's Sunday school class and let him answer questions.

During a 1999 visit to Knoxville, Tenn., the lanky Texan folded down onto a kid-sized chair and faced a circle of pre-school and elementary children. With his long white hair and flowing white beard, he resembled an icon of St. Nicholas -- as in St. Nicholas, the monk and 4th century bishop of Myra.

As snacks were served, a child asked if Dmitri liked his donuts plain or with sprinkles. With a straight face, the scholarly archbishop explained that he had theological reasons -- based on centuries of church tradition -- for preferring donuts with icing and sprinkles.

A parent in the back of the room whispered: "Here we go." Some of the children giggled, amused at the sight of the bemused bishop holding up a colorful pastry as if he was performing a ritual.

"In Orthodoxy, there are seasons in which we fast from many of the foods we love," he said. "When we fast, we should fast. But when we feast, we should truly feast and be thankful." Thus, he reasoned, with a smile, that donuts with sprinkles and icing were "more Orthodox" than plain donuts.

Archbishop Dmitri made that Knoxville trip to ordain yet another priest in his diocese, which grew from a dozen parishes to 70 during his three decades. The 87-year-old missionary died last Sunday (Aug. 28) in his simple bungalow -- complete with leaky kitchen roof -- next to Saint Seraphim Cathedral, the parish he founded in 1954. Parishioners were worried the upstairs floor might buckle under the weight of those praying around his deathbed.

The future archbishop was raised Southern Baptist in the town of Teague, Texas, before moving to Dallas. As teens, Royster and his sister became intrigued with the history of the major Christian holidays and began visiting a variety of churches, including an Orthodox parish. The services were completely in Greek, but they joined anyway -- decades before evangelical-to-Orthodox conversions became common.

During World War II the young Texan learned Japanese in order to interrogate prisoners of war, while serving on Gen. Douglas MacArthur's staff. A gifted linguist, he later taught Greek and Spanish classes on the campus of Southern Methodist University. While training to serve in the OCA, which has Russian roots, he learned Old Russian and some modern Russian.

Early in his priesthood, the Dallas parish was so small that Dmitri helped his sister operate a restaurant to support the ministry, thus becoming a skilled chef who was famous for his hospitality and love of cooking for his flocks. During his years as a missionary bishop, driving back and forth from Dallas to Miami, monks in New Orleans saved him packages of his favorite chicory coffee and Hispanic parishioners offered bottles of homemade hot sauce, which he stashed in special slots in his Byzantine mitre's traveling case.

A pivotal moment in his career came just before the creation of the Diocese of the South. In 1977, then Bishop Dmitri was elected -- in a landslide -- as the OCA metropolitan, to lead the national hierarchy in Syosset, New York. But the ethnic Slavic core in the synod of bishops ignored the clergy vote and appointed one of its own.

Decades later, the Orthodox theologian Father Thomas Hopko described the impact of that election this way: "One could have gone to Syosset and become a metropolitan, or go to Dallas and become a saint."

The priest ordained in Tennessee on that Sunday back in 1999 shared this judgment, when reacting to the death of "Vladika" (in English, "master") Dmitri.

"There are a number of saints within Orthodox history who are given the title, 'Equal to the Apostles,' " noted Father J. Stephen Freeman of Oak Ridge. "I cannot rush beyond the church and declare a saint where the church has not done so, but I can think of no better description of the life and ministry of Vladika Dmitri here in the South than 'Equal to the Apostles.' "

Symbols in the Texas hills

KERRVILLE, Texas -- The bracelet is both simple and a bit strange, since it consists of six or seven fishing lures connected end to end. Some people look at this piece of silver or gold jewelry in the James Avery line and they see fishing lures -- period.

But other shoppers see the same item and they think of these words of Jesus: "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." This is especially true if they have completed a United Methodist Walk to Emmaus weekend, or some other renewal program inspired by the Catholic Cursillo movement.

"Most of our customers purchase and wear that for the religious symbolism," said Paul Avery, executive vice president of the company that his father started in a garage. "But there is a group that has no clue what it means. ... They just happen to like it. They like to fish or whatever."

So one man's ring of fishing lures is another man's symbol of faith.

The key is that there is an element of mystery to symbols of this kind, said another veteran of this family-driven firm based in Kerrville, an arts-friendly community in the Texas Hill Country.

"It's interesting that you would never find this in traditional church history, this symbol, but you would find the scriptural reference to being fishers of men," said Howell Ridout, the company's vice president of marketing and development.

This particular bracelet started out as a "grassroots thing that just happened," he explained. Emmaus Walk veterans "actually started using fishing tackle from the hardware store" to remind themselves of the importance of this biblical passage. Now, this modern bracelet is one of the company's most popular items.

Then again, the current catalogue also contains the very first cross that founder James Avery designed in 1954, a variation on a classic Latin design. Some of the Christian and Jewish symbolism used in this jewelry is truly ancient, while other pieces offer modern variations on biblical themes -- such as a bare cross made of nails.

In recent years, Ridout explained, religious items have made up 25 percent of the company's line and about 25 percent of its sales. However, nearly 80 percent of all James Avery customers at one time or another purchase at least one item of religious jewelry. Clearly, these items are central to the company's identity, he said.

For centuries, religious symbolism has been at the heart of some forms of faith. What is unusual about the James Avery story is that almost all of the company's stores -- there will be 59 by the year's end -- are in the Bible Belt and 49 are in Texas.

While its customer base includes a wide range of believers, the chain could not succeed in the region in which it is succeeding without appealing to Baptists and other conservative Protestants who for generations have viewed religious symbolism as too "high church," if not too Catholic.

Then again, the Hill Country location is crucial. Its culture blends art elements from the American Midwest, from Germans settlers, from rustic ranches across the Southwestern and, of course, from Spanish influences. The result is a unique aesthetic expressed in stone, leather, wood and pounded silver.

"Texas is, geographically, a very unique area," said Paul Avery. "You have the deep Hispanic culture that is so rooted in that Catholic base. Then you have more of the Protestant side of that, the non-Catholic. And there's a blend of those two cultures that probably allows a lot of ... natural evolution."

These hills also are full of church youth camps, a network that exposed James Avery's work to young seekers as the 1960s veered into the "Jesus Movement" of the 1970s, which led into an era of charismatic renewal in mainline churches and waves of changes in how many Americans worship.

These days, art and even elements of liturgy can be found in a wide variety of Protestant sanctuaries, Ridout said. Churches of all kinds are moving in a more visual, experiential direction.

It has become common to see Texans wearing crosses -- or perhaps symbolic fishing lures -- as they go to work, to school, to the grocery store or to church.

"I think there are some clues there, both as to what is acceptable and to what's sought after and comfortable," Ridout said. These changes symbolize "what's meaningful to people, what truly motivates them."

Xmas is fake, so deal with it

As the Christmas pageant dress rehearsal rolled to its bold finale, reporter Hank Stuever found his mind drifting away to an unlikely artistic destination -- a masterpiece from the Cubist movement.

The cast of "It's a Wonderful Life 2" reassembled on stage at Celebration Covenant Church, a suburban megachurch north of Dallas. There were characters from a Victorian tableau, along with Frosty the Snowman, young ballerinas and children dressed as penguins. Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus were there, too.

Then, entering from stage right, came "an adult Christ stripped down to his loincloth and smeared with Dracula blood, dragging a cross to center stage while being whipped by two centurion guards," writes Stuever, in "Tinsel," his open-a-vein study of Christmas in the American marketplace.

"Here is where the Nativity, Dickens and Burl Ives collide head-on with Good Friday, as Jesus is crucified while everyone sings 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing,' ending on a long, noisy note: 'newborn kiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing.'

"Then they freeze.

"Hold it for applause."

The scene was achingly sincere and painfully bizarre, with holy images jammed into a pop framework next to crass materialism. For millions of Americans, this is the real Christmas.

"I wrote it in my notes, right there in that church," said Stuever. "I wrote, 'It's Picasso.' ... I just couldn't believe it."

There is nothing new about a journalist "embedding" himself to experience life on the front lines. Rather than heading to Iraq, Stuever moved to the Bible Belt. He lived in Frisco, Texas, for six months in 2006, then made 12 short follow-up trips during the next two years.

The veteran Washington Post reporter convinced three families to let him see Christmas through their eyes, from the Back Friday craziness to the somber trashing of mountains of ripped wrapping paper. The book's credo is voiced by Tammie Parnell, a 40-something business dynamo who decorates McMansions for women who are too busy to prepare for a Texas-sized Christmas.

"Fake is okay here," she tells Stuever. "Diamond earrings. Christmas trees. If you want me to prove that fake is okay here, let's you and I go to the Stonebriar Country Club pool one day and check everyone out."

The bottom line? Most Americans say they want Bethlehem and the North Pole, but the truth is that they invest more time, energy and money at the North Pole. That's fine with Stuever, who is openly gay and calls himself a "Christmas loser" -- while wrestling with the lessons of his Jesuit education and the loss of his Catholic faith.

"A dip into even the most reverent inquiries by Bible scholars," he argues, "easily leads to the conclusion that there was no actual manger scene in Bethlehem, no shepherds dropping by to see the baby, no star in the east, no Magi, no frankincense, no myrrh. ... Many scholars have concluded, some more gently than others, that the Christmas story is intentionally fictive, written by the earliest, first-century evangelists to beef up Jesus' street cred as a believable Jewish Messiah. Like any superhero, Christ needed an origin story rife with the drama, metaphors and the meaningful symbols of the era."

Thus, "Tinsel" seeks the meaning of Christmas in the material world itself, in the blitz of shopping, in houses draped in high-voltage lights, in the complex joys and tensions of family life. Stuever argues that the binges of shopping and feasting are as ancient -- and more significant today -- than the rites of praying and believing.

For Stuever, Christmas is fake, but that's fine because fake is all there is. He argues that millions of Americans struggle to find the "total moments" of nostalgia and joy that they seek at Christmas because they are not being honest about why they do what they do during the all-consuming dash to Dec. 25.

"It's so easy to see all of the craziness on TV and say, 'Oh, those poor, stupid people,' " he said. "But when you get down there in the middle of it with them and listen to what people are saying and try to feel what they are feeling, you realize that all of that wildness is not just about buying the new Wii at Best Buy. ...

"It's a religious experience for them, even though it couldn't be more secular. They're out there searching for transcendence, trying to find what they think is the magic of Christmas."

Not a rookie, at faith

Jim Morris came of age in a West Texas town, which means the locals didn't need to use street addresses to tell where they lived.

All he had to say was that his house was one block from Wood Creek Baptist Church and a vacant lot away from the Camp Bowie Sports Complex. That would cover the essentials, out where nobody talks much about the separation of church and sports.

"The first thing you need to understand about West Texas is that even local video stores have announcement boards out front with messages like, 'Keep Christ in Christmas,' " said Morris, in the first line of "The Rookie," the book about his middle-aged ascent into major-league baseball. "The second thing to understand is that, if Jesus Christ himself were to show up on a Friday night in the fall, he'd have to wangle a seat in the high school stadium and wait until the football game ended before declaring his arrival."

Naturally, a whole lot of praying and Bible reading vanished when Walt Disney Pictures got a hold of this story. But the good news for fans of old-fashioned movies is that God wasn't totally written out of the plot when the "The Rookie" moved to the big screen. It's hard to drain the faith out of a West Texas tale full of baseball, babies, wedding rings, tears, tough love and nuns appealing to the patron saint of impossible dreams.

Morris was natural athlete who almost reached the big show as a youngster, before his body broke down. So he got married, settled down, started teaching school and coaching a little baseball.

Then the kids on his ragged high school team make him promise to give baseball one more shot, if they won the district championship. The team won district. Morris went to a free-agent tryout and discovered that his blown-out shoulder was serving up 98 mile-per-hour fastballs -- light years past what he threw in his prime. With the stunned blessing of his wife and three kids, Morris headed to the minor leagues and then, at age 35, to the big leagues.

Roll out the clich? No Hollywood ink slinger would dare concoct such a story.

"It was God," said Morris, who is busy as a motivational speaker in both religious and secular settings. "What other explanation could there be for what happened?"

"The Rookie" has already passed $70 million in ticket sales, which means Disney succeeded in creating a feel-good hit for baseball season. But the movie also raised eyebrows with its G rating, which is often box-office death with adults.

The key is that "The Rookie" is basically an updated version of one of old Hollywood's most popular products - the inspiring story of a good man who beats the odds and wins big. Moviemakers used to tell this kind of story all the time and they almost always included a healthy dose of faith and family.

As it turns out, this formula still works - if the story is good enough.

"Quite frankly, faith played a big role in my life, so it would have been impossible to have left that out of the movie," said Morris. But the producers of the movie "didn't draw much attention to the religious side of the story."

They didn't have to. It was shocking enough to watch Hollywood tell a simple story about grown-ups and kids chasing their dreams, while keeping their vows and saying a prayer or two. But those who read the book will wonder, in particular, what happened to its major theme -- which is the pitcher's ongoing efforts to fathom "God's mysterious ways" of working through both the agony and the triumph of his life.

Nevertheless, God remains in the details, soaked into the images of family and commitment. Morris said his story makes "no sense whatsoever" without faith.

"They just sort of hit it, then back away a little," he said. "I thought that was appropriate, to tell you the truth. They didn't try to jam anything down anybody's throat. You didn't want people sitting in theaters saying, 'What are you trying to do here?' ... This is a movie. You really can't preach at people."