Book Review: The Orthodox Church, by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. Reviewed by Chad M.
As you may have noticed, the “Introduction to Orthodoxy” table at the Logos Bookstore has been growing steadily in recent years and months. This is a truly beautiful time to be exploring Orthodoxy—whether as an inquirer or a “cradle” Orthodox who wants to dig a little deeper— as more and more works are being written and/or translated into English. But this explosion of reading material may also prove a source of anxiety for many. I remember my own days as an inquirer. My initial questions were basic: “What is Orthodoxy? Where is it? What does it look like? Why haven’t I heard of it until now? What does the Orthodox Church believe? How is it different from other forms of Christianity?” I didn’t want a list of 10 books; I wanted one good book that would point me in the direction of what to read and do next. I have spoken to many other inquirers since then, and many of them say the same thing. We are all busy, and the books we choose to read are a sacrifice of precious time. So, whether you are an inquirer, already Orthodox or looking for a book to recommend to an inquiring friend—how do you choose a book that counts?
Despite the best efforts of authors and the demands of their readers, there is no single, perfect introduction to Orthodoxy. Many different types of people come to the Church for many different reasons. One book might speak directly to the heart of one reader while it leaves another completely bored and unsatisfied. For that reason, I will present here two very different but reputable introductions to Orthodoxy and give a few of their pros and cons.
The standard text for many, many years has been Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Church. (It is so old, in fact, that you will find it under Met. Kallistos’ former name, Timothy Ware, in the bookstore.) This was the first book I ever read about Orthodoxy, and I found it incredibly helpful. Met. Kallistos’ approach is that of a “big picture” survey: academic, objective, structured and historical. The book could easily be used as a text book for a college introduction to Orthodoxy, and Met. Kallistos gives voice to both Eastern and Western views of things, as well as both “liberal” and “conservative” sides of many issues within Orthodoxy. The first half of the book is devoted to the structure and history of the Orthodox Church, while the second half covers basic theological issues such as Christology, ecclesiology, the Sacraments and prayer. So, if you or someone you know is more of a “left brain”-type or history buff who needs the basic framework of cold, hard facts before proceeding to a more experiential approach, this book might be a good place to start.
For those more intuitive “right brain”-types, however, Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green’s new Welcome to the Orthodox Church is almost certainly the book read. If Met. Kallistos’ book is a classroom lecture, then Mathewes- Green takes the class on a field trip and guided tour of lived Orthodoxy. The approach is personal, conversational in tone, and experiential. The book is set up as a series of visits to a fictional Orthodox parish and is written in an almost stream-of-conscious style, as the author takes the reader by the hand and points out the various sights, sounds and smells that s/he encounters as s/he first enters the church and subsequently attends different services throughout the liturgical year. Each experience along the way—from observing the candles when first entering the narthex, to the content of the chanting, to discussions with parishioners during coffee hour—opens the door for Mathewes- Green to explain aspects of theology, Church history and personal piety. The seemingly scattershot order of the topics may prove confusing to some, but by the end of the book the reader has encountered a vast (and surprisingly deep) tapestry of the richness of Orthodox life and worship. As much as I benefitted from Met. Kallistos’ book several years ago, I found this new introduction to be very refreshing and edifying. I have also heard from a recent inquirer that this was the first and only introduction to Orthodoxy that “made sense” to her.
In the final analysis, we are deeply blessed to have both of these books—and a great many others. Each fits a certain need for a certain type of individual. I hope this little introduction to the Introduction Table has at least made it a little easier to decide which book is a good fit for you or someone you know. “Come and read!”