Carrying the Cross and Giving an Onion

From a talk given at the “Faith at Work” event for students at Bucknell University, sponsored by the Bucknell Faculty Staff Christian Association together with the Bucknell Orthodox Christian Fellowship among others, on Nov. 13 7531 (Nov. 26 2022 on the civil calendar).

My life in academia has been bound up with my life as an Orthodox Christian.

It started when I alternated between reading The Lord of the Rings and the Bible under the covers as a junior-high nerd while praying in secret as my sister suffered from an ultimately fatal illness. I had grown up in a basically agnostic household, nominally Unitarian and unfamiliar with the Bible, and in high-school would convert to the Christian Science of my mother’s family, where the model of The Christian Science Monitor led me into journalism after studying history at Brown. As urban affairs writer at the Chicago Sun-Times I became focused on writing about regional landscape and spirituality. When I returned to graduate school it was to study early Celtic literary landscape and Christianity. My master’s thesis in Wales was on the early Christian traditions of the landscape of Glastonbury in the West Country.

By the time I was working on my Ph.D. dissertation on early Christian literary landscapes, I had been baptized into the Orthodox Church, convicted by the beauty of a faith in which, as Dostoevsky put it, beauty will save the world, ultimately the otherworldly mysterious beauty of Christ. Of six books I have authored or co-edited to date, the first was entitled Tolkien’s Modern Middle Ages and my contribution was an essay on “Tolkien’s Cosmic-Christian Ecology.” My next was a book called Strange Beauty, which dealt with the overlay landscapes of early medieval Britain and Ireland in relation to the Christian doctrine of theosis. I edited a book collection called Re-Imagining Nature, for which I wrote two essays relating Orthodox Christian theology and cosmology to the developing field of ecosemiotics, looking at Creation as living mysterious symbolism of God. Subsequently I co-edited a book on the centennial of the Russian Revolution, related to my Russian-American family’s faith. I also have co-edited two books for Orthodox seminary presses in America on the poetics of Christian marriage and gender expression. Such poetics are little understood in our culture. Christ is considered the Bridegroom and the Church representing humanity is considered the Bride. The husband is considered the head of the family but charged with laying down his life for his family like Christ. This is a cosmological iconography of self-emptying rather than self-assertion.

Just as Marxist professors study Marxism, feminist professors study feminism, and Critical Race Theorists study Critical Race Theory, I am a Christian unworthily who studies and teaches Christian literature in light of the theology and philosophy and cosmology of formative thinkers of Christianity dating back to the first millennium. I also am ordained in the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, an autonomous Church formed by refugees from the Red Terror in Russia. I help lead worship weekly at St. John’s Orthodox Church in downtown Lewisburg and on campus. My courses have titles such as the Bible as Literature, offered next semester; there are still seats available! My current research involves writing the history of the novel as a Christian art form.

Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is an outstanding example of the Christian tradition of the novel as a teaching machine for personal transformation in Christ. In it the character Gruschenka, a woman of bad reputation but a loving heart, tells the fable of the onion. A miserly spiteful old woman died, and her angel tries to find a reason why she can be saved and not be in hell. She once gave an onion to a poor person. In the fable, the onion is handed to her in hell to see if it will be enough to pull her out. Others see the angel pulling her out of hell on that onion. They grab onto her feet. She kicks them away telling them it is her onion. The onion breaks and she falls into hell. All my life, says Grushenka repentantly for her sins, I have just given one little onion. That was when she reached out with heartfelt feeling to the protagonist Alyosha who was grieving over the death of his monastic elder, and the pure-hearted Alyosha responded to her with love, surprised to find the care emerge from behind her hardened persona. She in turn responded with heartfelt tears. Later Alyosha has a dream-vision of his dead monastic elder celebrating at the biblical wedding at Cana. I am here, the elder says, because I gave a little onion. You did too, he tells Alyosha, when you reached out to that spiritually hungry woman. Now, he says, start on your work.

So we work. Maybe we will give an onion, we hope, and I pray unworthily. But it’s not always easy even just to give an onion for myself the sinner as a Christian academic in the humanities today. I probably would not be hired and receive tenure today as a literature professor because of my faith. Atheistic models predominate, the poetics of Christianity are cancelled. The irony is that Christian traditions in the US now are much more reflective of global multicultural backgrounds than when Bucknell was a Baptist school. But today perhaps only 5 percent of Bucknell students and faculty are practicing traditional Christians of any kind, in terms of daily prayer and Scripture reading, regular worship, and a worldview that is primarily Christian rather than consumerist or careerist. There is little recognition of Christian backgrounds here as adding to diversity at a time in the world when Christians are the largest number of victims of physical violence in religious persecution worldwide.

My own religious tradition saw millions killed in the past century by bigoted secularists. Not long ago a friend who is an elderly Russian Orthodox priest in the US received a brain injury in a hate attack. Not long ago three full professors at Bucknell supported the malicious public labeling of me as Lewisburg’s Rasputin, a stereotyped villain associated with Russian Orthodox Christianity, deserving to be killed. One previously had said that practicing Christians on campus should not be employed at our campus but should be ostracized personally and professionally. His remains a leading faculty voice, helping recently to engineer a propaganda attack on a Catholic staffer who had written an article outlining traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality in a campus newsletter for Catholic students. This effort to silence her occurred at the same time that the U.S. Congress moved toward repealing the Defense of Marriage Act while rejecting a measure to protect religious freedoms.

As Christians we must look to the Cross each day in our work. We know unworthily that we must suffer and forgive our enemies, even as we sometimes need to call them out to prevent vulnerable people from being harmed by hate, because that too is loving our neighbors. I have witnessed an African Bucknell student withdraw because he felt his Ethiopian Orthodox faith not welcome here, as did a conservative Catholic American student. The problem cuts across cultures. On a global scale, 100 million dead around the world is the toll in the past century of rule by radical atheists. Yet in solidarity we as Orthodox Christians still can say, “Glory to God for all things.” Carrying the Cross every day is our daily work, along with giving an onion whenever we can.


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