I do not intend to provide full book reviews here at this time, but I do think it is nonetheless appropriate to inform our readers about two new books that discuss American Orthodox converts. Studying converts was the area of my own dissertation research (may I get that published some day!) and I hope it will be an area of interest to our readers as well. First, what spurred this posting was receiving the following announcement:
Dn. Gregory Roeber has co-authored a book with Mickey L. Mattox. Mattox presents why he converted to Roman Catholicism and Roeber why he converted to Orthodoxy. Both discuss it within the context of what Lutherans see in those churches (as both are former Lutherans) and what the larger theological issues are. This event will happen tomorrow (March 8th) at Marquette University.
Likewise, last fall Amy Slagle published The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity which is an ethnographic study of converts from parishes in the Pittsburgh area and Mississippi. I have read this and would highly recommend it.
I realize neither are strictly historical studies but I do believe they have relevance (directly so) for those of us looking at this question historically and hopefully these books will be of interest to many of our readers.
It is with pleasure that I announce to all of you a new, forthcoming documentary on Orthodoxy among the Yup’ik by Dmitry Trakovsky. Here is the press release:
After you’ve read that, if you’d like a foretaste, go here:
Please consider supporting him in his endeavor.
Those of us in the Academy are (our should be!) quite aware of the limitations of Wikipedia. Of course, some of the weaknesses are the same as they have been for any encyclopedia. Students too often think research begins and ends with them (alas, even in college). Too many citizens share that approach. Also, encyclopedia entries cannot take the time to be as nuanced as perhaps they should. In the case of Wikipedia, this can become a real problem. Recently, Timothy Messer-Kruse wrote from personal experience about how this is so (http://chronicle.com/article/The-Undue-Weight-of-Truth-on/130704/). I’d recommend reading the article, but in a nutshell, Dr. Messer-Kruse edited a Wikipedia entry on the Haymarket trial of 1886 based upon primary source research he had done through the Library of Congress. Wikipedia reacted by deleting his comments and noting he had to cite reliable sources! He tried again, again citing the court documents and also his own published work. It didn’t matter.
Now, on the one hand, one might argue that such is all an encyclopedia can do. It must simply add up the number of secondary sources making a particular point (that no evidence was presented by the prosecution at the trial–yeah, that was the point). Anyone stating otherwise, even if supported by primary sources, won’t be given a say. To some degree, that is what encyclopedias have always done–tried to present the general consensus on a given topic. Furthermore, Wikipedia is not a peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps it shouldn’t be expected to prioritize primary source scholarship.
On the other hand, it is difficult to understand how a platform that is supposed to be open to editing can dismiss the actual primary sources (say letters or diaries or court documents) in favor of historiographical ignorance (which happens for various reasons–no judgment intended at all toward other scholars of the Haymarket riot and trial).
Furthermore, this is a perennial problem within American Orthodox history. Both Matthew Namee and I have encountered it on more than one occasion, especially when discussing what we’ve called “the myth of unity”–the idea that all Orthodox in America were always under the Russians until 1917 and/or that the Russians always worked hard to demonstrate that they always clearly had jurisdiction everywhere and anywhere on the North American continent (or perhaps Americas more generally). Often those screaming the loudest were used to doing “history” work by collecting a bunch of secondary sources together. Similarly, when discussing Archbishop Arseny of Canada, those who seemed most upset with what I found in the court documents were not those who had actually read the court documents (we at SOCHA read them and made them available). Sometimes, people simply like the “conventional mendacity” (to quote Lord Acton) built up over the ages.
One of the long-term goals of SOCHA is to provide a platform that highlights primary sources and their importance. Exactly how this will be done is still coming into view, but certainly this blog is a beginning. We have posts by the four of us directors as well as by others who are knowledgeable in particular primary sources. We will continue to provide informative articles based on primary source work. More than that, once we are able to move forward with our future digitization project, readers will have access to primary sources themselves. We even envision a platform in which readers will be able to submit primary documents to the database. This will make it similar to Wikipedia, in that people will be able to add to the knowledge base and influence what is known and learned. Yet, it will differ in that it will be source material that is added, not conventional mendacity nor even a well documented interpretation. There will be limitations, of course, as readers won’t be spoon fed interpretations but would have to read, say, Bjerring’s writings themselves to determine what he tended to emphasize in his extant sermons, but I think this is actually better. Encyclopedias can be nice starting points, but a platform that forces people to think critically and rely on primary sources is better.
Of course, scholars and researchers are seriously questioning the degree to which people are prepared to think critically (you could follow the trail starting with this: http://chronicle.com/article/Academically-Adrift-The/130743/) but that’s a different discussion for another time.
In the last several years, the discipline known as the “Digital Humanities” has come to the fore. Digital Humanities is basically the intersection of the humanities and digital technology, for all the breadth that can mean, but often involves meta-data (data about data, if you will). One of the sub-disciplines in the digital humanities field is digital history.
Digital history has generally meant using digital tools to help analyze historical source materials, though this can be done in different ways, from digital archives and interactive maps to text mining (assessing a text for patterns, perhaps of place-names or certain verbal structures). By virtue of this blog and our associated Journal of American Orthodox Church History, SOCHA is certainly involved in digital history. Furthermore, we intend to establish an online digital archive that will be searchable. It will take time for this to occur, of course, but it is our full intention to work toward that.
That said, there are some areas of caution that one ought to have when thinking about digital history. This recent blog post by Stanley Fish gets at one way in which text mining can be problematic:
Essentially, Mr. Fish notes the problem of omitting contextual considerations. It is too tempting for people in the digital humanities to perform their search, find some pattern of something or other and then make a bold claim.
I think he’s spot on, and even more so when applied to digital history. It is a temptation in history generally. It is difficult sometimes for historians not to confuse trivia with history. Already, historians, especially new (young) historians, find a unique little snippet only to be faced with the challenge of confronting that initial excitement with the prospects of context. That is, what is the ultimate significance of that snippet? What does it tell us about American Orthodox Church history, for instance, or religion in American more generally in the nineteenth century, etc.? That is, the contextual questions are there to keep the historian honest and avoid a myopic vision. Text mining, though, as noted by Mr. Fish, is already beginning to make the temptation of mistaking trivia for history all too real. The larger contextual and theoretical questions are sometimes pushed aside all too easily.
So, are we at SOCHA part of the problem? I don’t think so. I realize any singular blog post, taken on its own, could certainly seem to be analogous to the context-less argument from text mining, but I think if one realizes that the blog entry ought to be seen within the context of the blog as a whole, and really in the context of SOCHA’s work as a whole, all is well. Matthew Namee and I have both written on early jurisdictional issues. We also have JAOCH, which often deals with larger American-Orthodox historical concerns. It is true that JAOCH is “narrow” in that it is concentrated on certain ecclesiastical histories, but it still requires the articles to be grounded in the larger histories of those various churches. Also, when we do finally, some year down the road, unveil our digital, searchable archive, the intention will be to further the use of source material and not simply to encourage “pattern finding.” There is much that digital history has to offer, but in keeping with the concerns raised by Mr. Fish, it is our hope and belief that SOCHA will be part of a creative but historically honest and grounded use of digital technology.
Bishop Sophronios/Sophronius (Beshara) was a bishop for the Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church of North America (HEOCACNA), an enterprise started by Bishop Aftimios. For all intents and purposes, the jurisdictional unity attempt died in 1933. Bishop Sophronius, however, was the last bishop. The date of his death has been given as 1934 by Archimandrite Seraphim (Surrency) in his book The Quest for Orthodox Unity in America. Others have often followed that. Yet, his grave marker states 1940, a date noted here as well:
This begs the question of which is correct and if 1940 is correct, what was he doing during those intervening years?
Well, 1940 is correct and what he was doing was ordaining people to his American Orthodox Catholic Church (an alternative name for HEOCACNA).
Here are two examples of newspaper articles referring to him ordaining men to the priesthood:
For those interested in the beginning of his episcopal career, these might be of interest: