Recommended Reading – Winter 2012

On Earth As In Heaven: Ecological Vision and Initiatives of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew

Edited by Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis
Fordham Univ. Press, 384 pp, $32
Reviewed by Fr. Ioannis Freeman

Considered the “Green Patriarch,” Bartholomew has devoted more attention to environmental concerns during his twenty years as Ecumenical Patriarch than any global church leader with similar tenure. The title of this third and final volume covering his twenty-year ecological legacy, edited by John Chryssavgis, draws upon a phrase in the Lord’s Prayer. “On Earth as in Heaven” indicates a present and future possibility that the will of God is to bring the orderliness and respect of His holy dwelling to the earth, as reflected in the order of the words in Greek: “as in heaven, so on the earth.”

Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, in the book’s Foreword, traces how the future Patriarch provided “inspired (global) leadership” for bearing Christian witness to the aims of the World Wide Fund for Nature in 1986 at its twenty-fifth anniversary in Assisi, Italy. Philip had served as president to the WWF throughout the 1980’s, during which time the 1986 Assisi-based general conference created the Alliance of Religious Conservation.

Chryssavgis identifies keywords as themes in each of these encyclicals. The encyclical for 1992 is titled “Matter and Spirit.” Not only is this text the first of Bartholomew’s encyclicals for the first day of September annually, but it also sets a tone of paradoxical and analogical reasoning that characterizes Orthodox theology, anthropology, and cosmology in general, and Batholomew’s prodigious contributions in particular. Illustrating this tone is the following passage: “Thus, ‘autumn’ and ‘spring,’ which to most people might signify diametrically opposed factors, actually converge and coincide in the inauguration of the ecclesiastical year as one entity established by God.”

Bartholomew dedicates reflections on “Creation and Idol” to the year 1998. He considers the relationship between “the Holy Orthodox Church” and “the natural world harmonious” because the Church accepts that “…the entire creation is very good.” According to Bartholomew’s reasoning, real harmony between human beings and the natural world is not only a present and future possibility, but also a present and future reality within the “Holy Church.”

Bartholomew minces no words to describe an Orthodox view of ecological sin as idolatry, which is caused by refusal to accept simple limitations that must be self-imposed. The result of failure to accept limitations is abuse of nature. In turn, “nature rebelled against humanity, which abuses it.” Thus, “creation continues to groan” as “awareness” increases while “action” decreases.

Readers with even limited knowledge of Orthodox theology will appreciate the texts collected in chapter three, the largest chapter, “Orthodox theology and the environmental general addresses,” which holds 79 pages. Additionally, the clear link, in chapter five, between prayer and spirituality and the twin themes of transfiguration and sacrifice points out to the twenty-first century Christian that care for the environment is part of the journey of salvation.

For example, in Bartholomew’s opening address to the 1997 conference on the natural environment convened on Mt. Athos, Greece, he reflects: “This means that it would not be excessive if one were to demand of those who chose the monastic life out of their own volition to care less for convenience and more for the preservation of the natural beauty and the silent character of the Holy Mountain … And in order to sharpen somewhat our discourse, we remind you with paternal love of the exact stating of Abba Isaac: ‘God and His angels rejoice where there are needs, but the devil and his friends do so at times of ease.’” Therefore, prayer draws Christians toward self-sacrifice from at least some “modern” conveniences in order to protect the natural environment.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

by Amy Chua
Penguin Press, 256 pp, $25.95
Reviewed by Sheri San Cherico

Lost on many readers of Amy Chua’s now infamous Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is that it is satire. But this book is no joke.

The three-part story walks the reader through Chua’s conscious choice and subsequent battles of raising her two Chinese-American daughters in the style of “Chinese parenting.” Early on, she defines this style by describing what her daughters Sophia and Louisa were never allowed to do: “attend a sleepover, have a play-date, be in a school play, complain about not being in a school play, watch TV or play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than an A, not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama, play any instrument other than the piano or violin, not play the piano or violin.” So begins Chua’s frontal attack on “Western” child rearing.

Frankly, to a Western reader, Chua’s parenting at times seems draconian. The most problematic moments are when Chua screams at her children, calling one lazy and stupid, and the other a disgrace as a daughter. Later she explains that everything she does is for them and for their futures, seemingly unaware that she could be fulfilling her own need for success. She drives her daughters hard, forcing them to practice their instruments for an hour and a half every day without fail, and for six hours a day on many occasions. She then includes moments of obvious satire and self-ridicule, such as when she describes her drive to Chinese-parent her dog, criticizing her husband for not having dreams for their daughters—and for their dog. Yet her satirical self-disclosure rings hollow, as she is still obviously trying to “win” the battle against the West in her pursuit of the alternative Chinese model.

For all of its scandal to our Western parenting sensibilities, two points shine: First, “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work.” Second, it is much better for a child’s self-esteem to teach her how to succeed rather than letting her simply give up—that is, a Chinese parent is protecting her child by “preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.”

After reading Chua’s book, I was fairly disgusted with her notions of success: Carnegie Hall, the Ivy League, high paying jobs, prestige. She wants her daughters to be at the top of everything they do. This begs two questions, at least: Who did they have to step on to reach the putative summit? What does such a perspective do to the humanity of those who do not (or cannot) reach this summit?

Another question is even more pressing: To what end? Is it worth sacrificing my daughters’ friendships, the experience of other activities, or their having a choice in their own pursuits in order to be “the best”—not to mention the elusive nature of “the best”?

Chua did make me question the end for which I am now preparing my children. Perhaps I do not want to ensure Carnegie Hall. But to be able to identify and care for the marginalized in their surroundings? Perhaps not an Ivy League school. But the ability to grasp and defend their Church’s beliefs? To be able to overcome their anger, or work through conflict peacefully? To know the Liturgy so well as to understand and be vivified by it?

Chua reminds us that we do not have to accept the play-date, video game, affirmations-only world of Western parenting, but that we as parents have a responsibility to be actively and inten-tionally involved in preparing our child-ren for the adults they will become, and that we can demand a whole lot more of our children than we do. And that they’ll thank us for it in the end.

 

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 63 / Winter 2012

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