By Abigail Woolley
At 9:30 a.m. on January 13, a group of about 200 people stood gathered in the fellowship hall of St. George’s Orthodox Cathedral in Wichita. They faced the east wall, where, behind a speaker’s podium, hung banners featuring icons of saints. In unison, they began to say the Nicene Creed.
An observer would have noticed that some of the company — including a few long-bearded men in cassocks — confidently recited the words from memory, while others relied on their printed program to follow the unaccustomed translation of the Creed. Listening closely, one might even have heard a few extra words (“and the Son”) added quickly under someone’s breath.
This group — composed of laypeople and clergy, Antiochian and Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Protestants ranging from nondenominational evangelicals to Lutherans and Charismatic Episcopalians — had gathered from all over Kansas and several surrounding states for the seventh annual Symposium of the Eighth Day Institute. For three days, they came to hear Frederica Mathewes-Green (Orthodox), Brian Zahnd (nondenominational Protestant), Martin Cothran (Roman Catholic), and several breakout presenters address the theme of public theology.
How did such a gathering come to be? Eighth Day Institute, founded by incipient Orthodox theologian Erin Doom in 2006, has a mission to “renew culture through faith and learning.” It took its name from its partner organization, Eighth Day Books — also Orthodox-run but ecumenically minded — which Warren Farha has owned and operated since 1988. Packed with icons, incense, and prayer ropes, and with poetry and essay collections winding into every corner of the converted century-old house, the bookstore has always been a portal into ancient Christianity, classic literature, and great ideas of all kinds. Someone might come in at first for DeLillo, rediscover Dickinson, and end up immersed in Pseudo-Dionysius. It was here that the symposium held its opening reception. This seems particularly fitting, since the years Doom spent working at the bookstore served as his entrée into Orthodoxy and what he calls “Eighth Day Ecumenism.”
Like the bookstore that incubated it, EDI reaches intentionally across denominational lines. Rather than sweeping doctrinal differences under the rug, however, it seeks to focus its ecumenism on the theological riches of ancient Christianity, which Christians of both East and West can claim as their heritage. Doom calls this project “a dialogue of love, grounded in tradition.” With tradition thus in view, EDI groups meet throughout the year to read authors like Chrysostom, Milton, and MacDonald, to celebrate feasts of the Christian year, and to tell stories of saints and heroes.
As much as EDI roots its identity in ancient faith, its conferences raise the questions of the present. This year’s did so perhaps more than ever, addressing the theme “Where Are the Watchmen? Theology in the Public Square.” The topic allowed no one to ignore the fact that Donald Trump would be inaugurated as president just one week later. “What is the public role of Christian theology now?” the conference asked. The setting in Kansas, along with the denominational diversity of participants, meant that no initial consensus could be taken for granted.
The mission of EDI — “renewing culture” — leaves room for ambiguity. What does it mean to “renew” culture, after all?
Does “renewal” signal a reactionary impulse of those determined to hang on to familiar forms at all costs? Someone who had only heard Martin Cothran’s plenary address could be forgiven for interpreting “renewal” that way. Cothran, purveyor of classical school curriculum and senior policy analyst at The Family Foundation, asserted that American culture has changed more in the last five to ten years than in the 50 years before (and to be clear, that is not a good thing). “Culture is no longer on our side,” he said. Furthermore, he did not hesitate to assume the Republican Party was Christians’ best representative on social issues, apparently construing the confessedly orthodox group as uniformly politically conservative.
Someone who had only heard Brian Zahnd’s plenary address, however, would come to believe that EDI’s cultural renewal implies a prophetic critique of empire from the margins. Zahnd, the pastor of a large church in St. Joseph, Missouri, narrated the arduous process of “decoupling” his church’s vision of the gospel from American nationalism. With a set of social concerns in mind that differed widely from Cothran’s, Zahnd cited Cornel West and James Cone as strong examples of public theologians. The reason “every city needs an Eighth Day Institute,” he said, is that a Christianity drawing from the wells of its heritage will be less vulnerable to political manipulation than popular Christianity driven by trends. His conclusion: “One of the most important things Christian public theology can do now is vigorously resist the hijacking of popular Christianity by U.S. nationalism.”
“Renewal” could mean yet another thing to EDI: the birthing of new forms of shared Christian life. Frederica Mathewes-Green, while none too optimistic about the prospects of any traditional Christian who wants to write for mainstream media, spoke cheerfully about what is possible. “It is a recipe for disaster to assume that we will direct culture,” she said, “but the culture may change for the better anyway.” Rather than tying Christian hope on public influence, then, we must adopt a vision of influence not limited to the public sphere. For instance, she stressed the constant invitation for Christians into personal communion with Jesus. Second, she put forth home life as a socially significant locus of culture-making.
It is in extending this project of culture-making beyond personal and family life that EDI seems to find its calling. It has certainly become a hub for enthusiastic, reading Christians in and around Wichita. One could see this clearly even at the symposium, which — far from being merely a conference — had the feel of a large family reunion. The climax of the festive feeling was Friday evening, when conference participants and others from the community attended the Festal Banquet of St. Gregory of Nyssa. The cathedral choir sang; a string quartet performed; wine flowed; guests feasted on Mediterranean cuisine catered by a church member; and throughout the evening, the keynote speakers delivered encomia to St. Gregory.
Signs of a Wichita Christian culture of learning can be seen throughout the year as well. The “Hall of Men” is composed of — you guessed it — men, who take turns telling stories of historical Christian heroes while smoking pipes and drinking craft beer. “Sisters of Sophia” is its newer, exclusively female, counterpart — with noticeably less pipe-smoking. The “Society of Simple Souls” is a gathering of all types, who undertake a lectio continua of classic fiction or epic poetry, interrupted by friendly conversation and sustained by spreads of berries and homemade cheese. “Great Conversations,” started earlier by local educator Mike Witherspoon with the goal of “rescuing discourse from the political parties,” has partnered with EDI in the past year to host packed-out panel discussions on contemporary issues including school sports, the presidential candidates, and Black Lives Matter. The annual Feast of St. Patrick has featured a local Irish-Americana band, tributes to the saint, and Irish-inspired fare.
If one had been listening for what “renewal” meant to the symposium speakers, one would have noticed that Rod Dreher and his “Benedict Option” were mentioned favorably several times. Are EDI participants — as Dreher’s hasty critics might say — gloomy about the future, despairing of lost “culture wars,” and preparing to withdraw into isolation to ride out a new Dark Age?
If so, they are making an odd beginning. Why host city-wide panels to discuss current events, if you are only planning to abandon society? Why reach out for Christian unity across institutional divides? Why host first-rate festal parties?
For Erin Doom, “cultural renewal” speaks not of retreat but of cultivating distinctive — and attractive — forms of Christian life. He quotes Ralph Wood, who says the church gives us
a distinctive kind of existence — with unique ways of birthing and dying, of becoming youthful and growing old, of marrying and remaining single, of celebrating and sacrificing, of thinking and imagining, of worshiping the true God and protesting against false gods.
What we know beyond doubt is that Eighth Day Institute is not gloomy. Even if they did retreat to form a community apart, we can only assume they would have a downright good time in it. An experience of the symposium is enough to show that such a community would have all the resources for deep friendship, lively debates, hoards of books, a rich and varied liturgical culture, genuine celebrations, plenty of live music, and excellent food.
Abigail Woolley lives in Dallas, Texas, where she is pursuing a PhD in Christian ethics at Southern Methodist University. She is a member of Church of the Incarnation.