Orthodox Christianity in Northern Appalachia

Tall Timbers nature preserve, pictured above, includes partial old-growth hemlock woods, and lies in a patchwork of public and private lands and forest in our region of Northern Appalachia sometimes dubbed Penn Wilds and according to legend a haunt of Big Foot. Tall Timbers was home to the American nature writer and food forager Euell Gibbons. About 45 minutes from our Church, it has been a gathering place at times for our picnics, family outings, and my university seminars, lysing also near the family homesteads of deeply rooted local Orthodox friends and fellow converts to the Orthodox Church. In a corner of the countryside not far away, we are building a small Orthodox temple for our mission parish of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia here in Appalachia, in its Northern region, which has deep roots too in this ancient mountain range and river valley (the Susquehanna) but is less well known as a region than Southern Appalachia, despite some aspects of shared culture resistant to modern globalization.

The posts below offer chronicles and reflections on Orthodox Christianity in Northern Appalachia, articulating some approaches to Orthodox apologetics in America unworthily from a literary professor and former urban journalist, now Orthodox priest living in the region. In our state, Northern Appalachia is called “Pennsyltucky” disparagingly by outsiders and sometimes affectionately by those living here. It resonates with J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy and Flannery O’Connor’s idea of the “Christ-haunted South” but is still in the North, incorporating forests and farms and coal towns, Pennsylvania Dutch treats and pierogis, nationalist deplorables and cultural neo-Stuartism, along with a full-range mix of Northeastern politics. In upstate New York, the region reaches up into Yankee Leatherstocking Country juxtaposed with the Erie Canal. It unites the early American nature philosophy brainstormed in writings by James Fenimore and Susan Fenimore Cooper up there, and by Charles Peirce down in Milford, PA, in another Appalachian county. Their nineteenth-century works parallel some aspects of Russian Orthodox Christian ideas of nature, and the elder Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels were long a favorite reading cycle of Russians. But they are at odds with the Unitarian-progressive views of Joseph Priestley, earlier in our region, which became dominant in American life and helped inform its technocratic and exceptionalist bent. Although musings on this blog often run far afield, to Byzantium and back, they always return in the unworthy thought and life of the writer to northern Appalachia, in which he oddly finds echoes of aspects of his youth in working-class neighborhoods of “Chicagoland,” both outsiders to globalization.

But these reflections at the same time unworthily seek to shed light from Orthodox cosmology on the field of ecosemiotics, which developed mainly in Estonia in recent decades, and considers how the earth can be experienced as signs and relationships of meaning. That field draws on the work of Pierce, himself a convert from Unitarianism to Trinitarian Anglicanism, and relates to the foundational American nature-writing of the Coopers. The experience of nature as a kind of story-landscape is made explicable cosmologically and theologically by Orthodox Christian understanding that Creation occurred in Christ — for “in the beginning God made heaven and earth” (Genesis 1) and “in the beginning was the Word [Logos]” (John 1). The uncreated divine energies suffuse Creation, articulated by the logoi of the Logos, Christ our true God Who rose from the dead.

St. Cyprian of Carthage once wrote that those who would have God as a Father need to have the Church as their Mother. The Mother of God who bore Christ the Creator in His incarnation as fully God and fully man in her womb is identified with the Church as the Body of Christ, and we are told in St. John’s Revelation that “the earth helped the woman” understood in tradition as the Church (Chapter 12). It is as if there is some profound resistance in God’s Creation to the disembodied and totalitarian technocratic spirit of Antichrist in our age, against which we find our ultimate ark of safety, freedom, and justice in His One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, the Orthodox Church.

Please feel free to reach out to me, a sinner, who asks your prayers.

Christ is in our midst!


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