At the Corner of East and Now
The back cover of the book jacket of Frederica Mathewes-Green's newest book, At the Corner of East and Now, quotes Fr. Peter Gillquist as describing the author as the "Orthodox Erma Bombeck." After reading her newest offering, I would rather describe Mathewes-Green as an "Orthodox Garrison Keillor."
Frederica Mathewes-Green, the wife of an Orthodox priest, uses Keillor-like skill in weaving stories that enthrall and captivate. The stories are, at the same time, entertaining and deeply instructional in the Faith.
The title of the book is meant to describe the format of the
book. "At the Corner of East" stands for alternate (and
odd-numbered) chapters describing her attendance at one Sunday
liturgy. These are chapters like the first one: "The Curse
of the Law, 7:53 a.m.: Kairon, Vesting Prayers, and Proskomedia." Each oddly-numbered chapter takes us progressively through that
"...and Now" stands for the even-numbered chapters that describe events in the everyday life of the Mathewes-Green family. These are chapters that take us, for example, to "Jesus of Santa Rosa, At a Mexican Restaurant in Santa Rosa."
The format is both inventive and intelligent, for it allows the author to show the reader how this wonderful, yet mystical and strange (yes, "eastern"), faith that she holds is not out of place at all in today's (yes, "western") world.
While Mathewes-Green delves into theology and spirituality, don't expect a deep theological treatise. The book is written to a broad audience, not just practicing Orthodox Christians. However, even long-time practicing Orthodox Christians can benefit and learn from her obviously well researched historical and theological commentary.
She describes the various "parts" of liturgy along with her own participation in the Sunday Liturgy that forms the "East" in the title. Her comments are accurate and poignant. Her position as the wife of the priest in the story is not central to the book, but is inescapable. Her writing about the role of the priest and the various characters in her parish show empathy for others and sympathy for her husband's most serious work as pastor.
Everyday events in the life of the Mathewes-Green family form fully half of the stories in this book. They are generally interesting. She tells us about characters that she and her family encounter. She also tells us about the characters that she and her family have become.
We read about her encounters with dirty words, AIDS patients, mohawk haircuts, Christian heavy metal music, and buffets in little Southern restaurants among other vignettes. All the stories are used to show how the author's faith is also part of her everyday life. They, in many ways, evangelize the reader in a much more effective way than mere theological writing.
If there are complaints about the book, they are minor. Two stand out for this reviewer: first, if you have heard Frederica Mathewes-Green speak at all in the past couple of years, you have already heard some of the stories used in the book. Stories that were interesting and refreshing when first heard are less so after the third or fourth exposure.
Second is the author's reliance (and seeming acceptance as normal) on ethnic descriptions to speak about Orthodoxy in America. "Arab," "Greek," and "Russian" Orthodoxy describe the approach to the jurisdictional chaos in this land, including the Orthodox Church in America. All in all, the complaints are minor. This is a book well worth reading, both for practicing Orthodox Christians and for those who may never have heard of Orthodoxy.
- reviewed by Fr. John Dresko