An unworthy Deacon, named for the brother of God: James, striving to "work out his salvation with fear and trembling" within the Tradition (paradosis) of the Eastern Orthodox Faith. It is a strange and marvelous journey, and I am accompanied by the fourfold fruit of my fecundity. My wife, the Matushka or Diaconissa Sophia, is my beloved partner in the pursuit of Theosis, and she ranks me in every way.
Who of us has not played that silly little game where a group of you sit in a circle and one of you whispers a brief but detailed story into the ear of the person next to you and then tells them to pass the story on to their neighbor in similar fashion. And by the time the story is retold aloud by the last person in the circle we get to laugh and giggle at how the tale evolved.
We've used it in Youth Groups to demonstrate the unreliability and consequent dangers of gossip...but I've also heard of it being used to demonstrate the unreliability of oral tradition. Well, quite frankly, it does no such thing.
I listened to Fr. Michael Oleksa this morning, relating the story of the martyrdom of St. Juvenaly. For quite sometime, Bancroft's account of how Fr. Juvenaly died (a really ugly story about being framed with some chief's daughter in bed with him) had been upheld by most histories (including, as I understand it, a relatively recent National Geographic magazine article). Bancroft's source was a diary claiming to be that of Fr. Juvenaly himself, but as Fr. Michael points out, it is an absurd forgery. And while an historian or archeologist might not be able to readily identify it as such, any Orthodox Christian could label it a fraud instantly. How? The author of the forgery got the feast dates wrong and even included feasts that don't exist on the Orthodox calender! (Don't you know that the Apostles Feast is in September?) What do we make of an Orthodox Hieromonk who can't get his own calender right? Apparently this forged diary is still displayed in Bancroft's library at Berkley...one wonders if they even know.
Anyway, Fr. Michael collected stories from oral tradition and was later able to corroborate them with external sources and has for all intents and purposes shown once again that Bancroft's popoular "historical" and "documented" account was patently untrue and that the oral tradition of the native people's of Alaska were accurate. This investigation, by the way, was one more step in convincing Fr. Michael to never dismiss the reliability of oral tradition...because it is not a whispered secret, it is public domain.
Want to play the aforementioned game in a way that more accurately reflects oral tradition? First, have numerous people from the circle actually witness the story, then discuss the story amongst themselves. After sometime, have these people return to the circle and ALOUD and amongst them all begin to relate the story to everyone else. Repeat this aloud and public story telling numerous times (maybe start a fire in the middle and perhaps do a little eating, drinking, and dancing too). Then start letting people who were not witnesses to the story begin to tell it as well...and of course where they make mistakes they will naturally be corrected by other's who perhaps heard it more clearly...or even by those who were actual witnesses to the event.
In other words...the story becomes public domain: literally apart of our collective memory and if anyone begins to embellish it, they would instantly identify it as not being apart of that which has been handed down...is this starting to sound familiar? These are the EXACT sort of apologetics used by the Chruch in ancient times to distinguish truth from heresey. It is also the means by which the Church PICKED the canon of Scripture. And, to be honest...this way of telling stories in the Church is still being practiced.
I propose we develope a "story game" similar to my example (perhaps without fire, food, drink, and dancing) for our youth that demonstrates the reliability of Oral Tradition.
Our text culture doesn't understand "oral tradition" because we imagine that text is better. We haven't the faith as of a little child because, mostly because of Protestantism, we want to *read* it. We imagine that reading - knowing and knowing is better than simply yeilding to the Church's teaching.
Try serving the "wrong food" to your child for Thanksgiving or Christmas and see the Oral Tradition in Action.
James, I find your scenario bogus and short sighted. It's been proven over and over again in the courts that an eye wittness is very unreliable. Your example postulates a single generation, yet the events in question happened many generations ago, where is your corrective "authoratative" source then? Dead and mouldering in the grave. The reality is that the oral tradition has authority because we say it does. The colletive inertia of the community is difficult to change, but consider this, it is subject to being audited by the written works of the church fathers. Hence we have the distinction between TRADITION and pious practice. In America, we've discarded some the pious practice and gone back to the patristic tradition (how often do we take communion?). Oral histories can't stand on their own and foundations of faith, that's why we invented the canon in the first place. It's a lot tougher to change a document than a story told around the campfire. The two have to balance each other's weaknesses.
Our entire faith rests soley on "unreliable" eyewitness accounts of the resurrection Steve...lest you claim a St. Thomas experience.
I'd say that what we presently have in place in our culture: an utter shunning of oral tradition is the real short-sighted and bogus scenerio.
The reality is that the oral tradition has authority because we say it does.
Steve, NOTHING has authority unless someone says it does.
I'm not sure you are right to say that oral histories can't stand on their own...in many cultures oral histories and traditions are integral to most everything they do. How they build their houses, how they court one another, literally everything...without writing down a single thing. This is precisely Fr. Michael's point.
In fact, I'd argue that Christianity has had MUCH more schismatic problems since reliance soley on scripture than when we relied primarily on oral tradition.
What I'm arguing for here is the tendency (a very strong one) that we eschew Oral Tradition in favor of a written one (if for no other reason than what you say about one be easier to change than the other) but if you ask Fr. Michael, he'll tell you that time and time again he found the native people's oral histories were more accurate than those written by us white folk.
Your suggestion that “Christianity has had MUCH more schismatic problems since reliance solely on scripture than when we relied primarily on oral tradition” is based on a false premise. Even during the first generation, we never relied solely on an oral tradition to communicate the truth of the Gospel. I don't think I have to rehearse for you the number of authoritative docs from the first 100 years of the church's existence that we still rely on today. The creation of the canon was not the creation of a written record; rather it was a selection of which written records most fully reflected the revealed truth of the incarnation of God in Christ. That the church fathers chose to select a sub set of all docs, but continued to use docs outside of that subset for day to day stuff is revealing. It shows us that the canon does not stand alone in the life of the church but is necessary in the life for some purpose. All throughout Christian history we’ve had schisms and heresies. According to Jaroslav Pelikan, the notion that there was ever a golden patristic age is a fantasy. In the years since the great schism, what has been lost to the west, (in particular the protestant west) has been the normalizing influence of the patristic teachings on “current” thought – the written patristic teachings and their proper interpretations. NOT (just) an oral tradition.
“he found the native people's oral histories were more accurate than those written by us white folk.” Ok, but by what standard? How does he know that they are more accurate? I remember a time when we were all together discussing the hagiography of St. Mary of Egypt. Each of us had heard or read the pertinent facts about her life, but there was substantial disagreement regarding some of the particulars. The Oral Traditions regarding her were muddled in our minds and we had quite the discussion trying to resolve them. We eventually gave up. Beowulf is a story handed down by oral tradition until it was first written down. How do we know it’s true? Is it reasonable to suppose that there was monster who lived at the bottom of the sea and that a man could dive and do battle with the monster? We dismiss Beowulf as myth much as the critics of our faith dismiss it as myth.
The key difference between Beowulf and our joint recollections of St. Mary’s Hagiography is that one is informed by faith, the other by “science”. We’re not troubled by the inconsistencies of our memories in the case of St. Mary because fundamentally we have intuited the Truth of her story. We’re not so invested in early English literature as we are our own soul. In all of the Traditions, teachings, understandings that guide our interpretation of Life, we suppose that, in fact, Christ did send the Holy Spirit to us, to guide us. It is as a result of this gift that we are able to discern Truth from whatever else is masquerading as it. Consequently, it’s not surprising that the stories that Fr. Michael have a degree of accuracy and cohesion. To the extent they are inspired by the Holy Spirit, they should be. However, it is a LONG jump from “divine revelation” to “oral histories are more accurate than written ones”. Both have people involved and consequently, both can be considered biased in some way; the more people who touch the record, the more potential for bias.
“in many cultures oral histories and traditions are integral to most everything they do. How they build their houses, how they court one another, literally everything...without writing down a single thing.” True, but I wouldn’t call this solely a linguistic thing, more like cultural inertia.
Even during the first generation, we never relied solely on an oral tradition to communicate the truth of the Gospel.
carefull....I didn't say "solely" I said primarily. I'd argue that in the first century, most Christians had no choice but to rely PRIMARILY on what was handed down to them (i.e. oral tradition.) They couldn't exactly cruise down to B&N to get the lates leather bound study Bible (canonized or not). Often a community of believers would have a collection of works which they read (St. Justin Martyr calls them the "memoirs of the apostles") but was it neccesary? Some had portions that others didn't and I imagine some had none.
The creation of the canon was not the creation of a written record; rather it was a selection of which written records most fully reflected the revealed truth of the incarnation of God in Christ.
And how was that truth revealed if not initially by "unreliable" eyewitness account and the handing down of "paradosis"? Again...how did St. Irenaios argue with the gnostics? Prooftexting? Not especially: who taught you these things? He essentially asks. (i.e. "these are not the stories we heard around our campfire...who are YOUR storytellers?")
According to Jaroslav Pelikan, the notion that there was ever a golden patristic age is a fantasy.
Well the notion of a single united church is, indeed. But you are not seriously trying to argue that we had schism back then that was anything near (quantitatively speaking) what it has been in the last few hundred years?
Ok, but by what standard? How does he know that they are more accurate?
He went to Russia and obtained old letters and documents that Bancroft never could have obtained. Of course, now that we have documentation we can prove that just because something is written down and has some cool footnotes doesn't make it neccesarily more accurate that the tale my grandmother told me. And this is the argument Steve...not that we abandon written works and rely solely on oral traditions. Rather I am saying that we need balance in favor of oral tradition in our culture. We DO have a notion that having something published makes it so (ask any scientist here in the lab: publish or perish is the motto.)
The Oral Traditions regarding her were muddled in our minds and we had quite the discussion trying to resolve them.
And what were we drinking Steve? And how much other crap have we filled our brains with besides the nightly stories around the fire: TV, Radio, X-Box, PS2, Battle for Middle Earth, Patrick O'Brien etc etc etc...heck its a wonder we can keep ANY stories straight given the overload we have today...and this might be another blogpost in and of itself: can the hagiographies chanted or read possibly compete (in our synapses) with the super-sensuous stimulation of STAR WARS. I'm surprised no one tried to claim that St. Mary had two children before dying: Luke and Leia.
Case and point: I used to be able to cite word for word Monty Python's Holy Grail....because I watched it a million freakin times. If the ONLY entertainment we had was in the nave of the Church, I'd bet we all would have known her story A LOT better. (Scotch aside)
“oral histories are more accurate than written ones”.
Let's be clear...I'm not saying this. I'm just saying they can be and demonstrably sometimes are.
James, a couple observations - consumable altered water molecules have been around for several thousand years, it's not unreasonable that some might be consumed during discussions of this nature, especially when you're basically living outdoors. Speaking of living outdoors, in Alaska, merely surviving can be as engrossing as an X-Box game...
Citizens of the Roman empire were quite literate, many in palestine speaking 3 or more languages. It was common practice to copy letters. Consequently, since most of the early communities were urban, it's not unreasonable to suppose that most of them had some form of "scripture" to study, even if it was just the old testament. Also consider that in early communities, the sunday worship would be an all day event with the bishop and other believers - in short something you'd travel to and somewhere where someone would have brought a copy of Paul's latest missive that they got from their uncle's friend's sister who took in laundry in ephesus...
I don't think publishing something makes it so, but it does put it out there in the public domain so that it's difficult to retract it or change it later...
I think we agree, we need to balance our reliance on the written word with "tradition" oral or not. I'm just not willing to take it to extrememes.
Citizens of the Roman empire were quite literate, many in palestine speaking 3 or more languages.
Yes, but how many could read and write any of these three or so languages? Do we really know? I suspect a fair number could, but your average Joe farmer or fisherman likely hadn't a clue...I could be wrong.
My eastern european relatives obtained literacy with my grandmother's generation. I don't think this was/is terribly uncommon.
Hopefully they were - over the ages - able to pass something along without reading or writing...even if my parents in this enlightened generation opted not to listen. Afterall...the stuff great grandmother told us was not written down along with footnotes, why listen?
I lament having lost so much.
Speaking of living outdoors, in Alaska, merely surviving can be as engrossing as an X-Box game...
Ahh...but even their survival skills were given to them by oral tradition and themselves furthermore reinforced (via actions of ritual and general practice - i.e. how precisely to skin and eat the seal) the stories that taught them how to truly be human. This is something we surely lack.
I think even well into the middle ages, only the very wealthy could afford the luxury of books and other written materials. And when the canon was finalized, the teminolgy they used was something along the lines of "those writings to be read in the church."
I get the impression that a given parish MIGHT have a rather full collection of St. Paul's writings, but precious few individuals.
We needed to wait for the printing press...and the protestants, sorta.
No extremes, agreed. Both written and oral tradition are precious to the body of Holy Tradition. But if we see any extremes in our culture...it is reliance upon the written and eschewing of the oral...heck eschewing of paradosis in general.
There is a difference between the "oral tradition" on practical matters such as skinning seals or building houses and the oral tradition as applied to heroic persons, the meaning of life, where we came from, etc. your analogies from architecture and hunting seem strained.
Also, consider that the Mishna is the jewish "oral tradition" regarding the interpretation of the Talmud which is, in itself, a commentary on the Torah. Both the Mishna and the Talmud have been written down for centuries (millenia?). Have they ceased to be "oral" tradition? have they ceased to normalize the orthodox understanding of the Torah? I think that the proper place of "oral" tradition is in a defined relationship with TRADITION as a whole. TRADITION acting as a counter weight to the new and creative impluses that each generation brings as they wrestle with the trancendent and seek to discover who God is, where they came from, and what does it all mean. Fr. Michael's stories of Orthodox Alaska seem targeted at answering these questions written down or not.
your analogies from architecture and hunting seem strained.
Not at all...their Native Alaskan religious beliefs and associated stories played right into everyday life: hunting (how you hunt, why you succeed, why you fail, what you do with the animal after you've killed) and the style of their traditional architecture: the houses were literally designed to be microcosms of their spiritual worldview...even the terminology reflected this, still today (when the architecture is radically different - thank you HUD) even many of the native words for things like "rafters" or "roof" are the same as the word for "sky."
There are tons of examples...I just think we as a culture are more and more seperating and categorizing our lives such that we have lost this...maybe its why we NEED written records: our everyday life is to scattered to really say ANYTHING.
These native peoples had their faith, traditions, and everyday life much more integrated than us - which ain't to say that we are encouraging the absurd noble savage myth.