As I reflect on the lesson plan that I have created, I think that the most important thing I am trying to address is Cultural Standard for Curriculum E.1, which reads, “encourages students to consider the inter-relationship between their local circumstances and the global community.”
The most basic portion of my lesson is to get my students, who are all formally members of the same religion and who share in a very homogeneous culture, to understand that other people who share their religion do not necessarily share their culture, including their specific religious culture. I think on many levels they are already aware of their cultural distinctness already. For instance, when I or other kassaqs visit the village, nobody expects us to speak Yup’ik or know local table manners. On other levels, they may be somewhat blind to their own culture, because they look out at the other from within, not necessarily seeing themselves. So for instance, when they talk to kassaqs subtly with their eyebrows or hear a kassaq speaking loudly, they may mistake the person for obtuse or rude, when in fact he or she simply doesn’t know what Fr. Oleksa so eloquently called “the rules of the game.”
When Orthodox people come in from outside, as I did in January when I visited, they very often are coached in how to adapt themselves to the rules of the local religious culture, and so I suspect differences that would otherwise become obvious are muted. There are exceptions to this, like, for instance, a few years ago when Fr. John Erickson, the respected former dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York, came to give some lectures. When he saw certain women standing outside the sanctuary where he was about to give his talk, he asked them to come in. When they refused and continued to try to listen from the doorway, he was told that this was due to the fact that they were menstruating. Understanding this, Fr. Erickson began to try to theologically convince them that it was okay for them to enter the sanctuary for the lesson. They laughed at him, thinking his request absurd to the point of being comical. Needless to say, he lost the argument.
It is my hope, through the cultural component of my lesson, to begin to help address the very basic issue of “not all Orthodox people do it the same way,” and that a lot of this can be understood in terms of culture. But I’m not completely convinced my strategy is a winning one. I remember my fiancee telling me about arguing with some of her high school students about the existence of abortion. No, I didn’t type that wrong; I’m not talking about the ethics of abortion, I’m talking about the existence of abortion. When my fiancee asked one of her classes to compare general Republican and Democrat positions on a number of issues, including abortion, there were several who were unaware that it even existed. One boy, one of the better students at the high school, challenged her directly, assuming that she was simply making up the worst possible thing she could think of and trying to tease the class with it. He simply could not wrap his mind around it. It made no sense. It was completely beyond his cultural frame of reference. “Babies are good. Everyone wants babies.” What happens when you have a baby you feel like you don’t want or can’t take care of? “Well, you find someone else who wants one and give it to them.” And that is simply how it is done in the village.
Religiously, my fiancee has encountered such cultural difficulties any number of times. Once, when she was taking a group of students to Hawaii on a grant, they met an Orthodox priest in an airport. He was dressed in a Western suit and clerical collar, as opposed to a more traditional Orthodox priestly garb, but my fiancee knew him and knew he was a priest. She went and received his blessing, which shocked and scandalized her students. She was eventually able to convince them that he was Orthodox even though (to them) he didn’t “look Orthodox.”
Later on that vacation, the students went into deep culture shock over things like restaurant menus (they had never eaten in restaurants before) and elevator buttons (they had never seen such things).
Therefore, I am a little concerned that my lesson may be over-ambitious, at least in terms of the embedded videos that I was thinking about using. The Greek Orthodox parish video from New Jersey concerns me the most, actually.
As I think about it, I’m beginning to have doubts that the students would even be willing to recognize these church people as actually being Orthodox. If students at the high school fought with my fiancee over a Roman collar, will they fight with me over all of the manifold, manifold Americanisms in the religious culture of this community that “prove” that clearly they are not Orthodox?
Angie asked me to try to write some things that might strike students as different and embed them within the lesson, and I came up with 14 just off the top of my head:
1) the use of instrumentation to accompany church singing (not traditionally practiced in Orthodox countries)
2) the presence of pews in the worship space (something not practiced in traditional Orthodoxy and not practiced in Yup’ik Orthodox Churches – they get in the way of traditional worship movements like prostrations)
3) the mixing of men and women freely in the worship space
4) the fact that the women are not wearing head coverings (which would indicate in Yup’ik Orthodox churches that they were not Orthodox, but means nothing in most East Coast American Orthodox congregations)
5) the fact that the senior priests are not wearing hats for this rite
6) the presence of stained glass windows in the building’s structure (not a part of Orthodox architecture in traditional countries and not a part of Yup’ik Orthodox church architecture)
7) the use of the censor by a subdeacon during the procession (a traditional Greek practice that is not a part of Yup’ik tradition)
8) the general posture of worshipers, which is free and shifting
9) the fact that the priest explicitly permits kneeling instead of full prostration (as is done by most Orthodox during this rite)
10) the use of the Greek language in the service
11) the generally different (non-Russian-influenced) character of the music
12) the pillar-style altar table (a Greek style not built in Western Alaska)
13) the fact that one priest who can clearly grow a beard is cleanshaven and another has only a mustache (culturally, Yup’ik priests tend to grow as much facial hair as they can, following an older Russian practice)
14) the fact that the priests don’t prostrate before the cross, but rather only bow (in a Yup’ik context, both the priests and the congregation would have made full prostrations)
So the question is, do these things become teaching moments about “culturally Americanized Greeks who are truly also Orthodox” and who can serve as a basis for expanding the horizons of the class, or are they really just a waste of time? Certainly, the answer that I’m looking for is a culturally responsive one. How do I use the culture that they have now (without in any way judging it) to try to bring them to an expanded view of the world? How do you get kids to follow you outside of the confines of their own minds and (indeed) the confines of their own culture? I guess the answer is, first of all, to try to teach them that you love them and that they can trust you and that you’re worth trusting. Only then, maybe, will they let me help them “consider the inter-relationship between their local circumstances and the global community.”