Music from Georgia – Ethnos Fulfilled

The subject of Orthodoxy and ethnicity has come up in several recent posts. To limit Orthodoxy to a particular ethnic group is, of course, heretical. But as I have noted earlier, the fullness of Orthodox does not destroy the particularity of who we are – but fulfills it. A man does not become less himself but more truly himself than he could ever have been apart from Christ. Only in Christ are we truly fulfilled.

The same is true of a culture. To remove the fullness of Christ from a culture would be to leave it little more than costume and stage play. Too much of our American culture is precisely that – many professing the Christian faith racing to compete in new ways to present the faith as yet another stage play – Church as karaoke.

But there is a possibility for all cultures to be truly fulfilled in Christ. What this would look like in America is not immediately obvious – though I suspect that many of its more native forms (“shape note” singing in Appalachia, for example) have probably come closer to doing this than any of our modern efforts. For a culture to be fulfilled there is a substance required to start with. Virtual reality will not do.

I believe thought about this topic will have to continue for quite some time. I welcome suggestions of examples. In the meantime – it is worth looking at an ancient culture which still can exhibit elements of its fulfillment. For a second time I am sharing some of the beauty of Georgian Orthodoxy.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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17 responses to “Music from Georgia – Ethnos Fulfilled”

  1. […] Music » ipod ?? I Organize ?? Blog Archive ?? Blog Feeds about Music â

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  3. Jeff Avatar

    For those interested, you can find some shapenote tunes on iTunes.

  4. Peter Gardner Avatar

    (More shapenote music at and some of the older, New England stratum at as well.)

    It was, in several ways, shapenote music that brought me to Orthodoxy. Until I started singing it, I never appreciated Tradition, for one thing. For another, the theology in the Sacred Harp and other such books is far closer to Orthodoxy than to the modern Protestantism I was steeped in (with notable exceptions, of course).

    Then I found a nearby Orthodox parish, and showed up, and discovered that the priest is a sacred harp singer as well.

  5. Stephen Avatar

    very nice! shape notes and sacred harp are several forms of early american music that can truly be considered a native form of worship. recently on a hunting trip to Montana with a friend ( non-orthodox) we had plenty of time to discuss our faith’s and spirituality. He has had a difficult time accepting many of the aspects of orthodoxy especially music since for the most part he has bought into the concept that worship and church are to be “culturally relative” to today and see’s orthodoxy as failing to keep up with the world. Music is so strong and influential but in my opinion it will be many years before “american orthodoxy” can be formed or any “style” will be blessed to carry the faith.

  6. MuleChewingBriars Avatar

    I don’t know if all of this “It will take American culture generations to become Orthodox” carries any weight. Russia produced some signal saints in her first Christian generation. Of course, there is little chance that The USA will “become” Orthodox by ukase the way Kievan Rus did. We have to go back to the very first centuries of the Church now, and work family by family, if not man by man.

    But the modern West is a very rare bird by anybody’s standards. For the most part, it represents a wholesale and communal flight into irreality fueled by six generations of accumulated industrial wealth. If Orthodoxy penetrates this particular culture, the effects will indeed be global.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar


    We’re not nearly in charge of culture in these parts. There are already ways, however, that Orthodoxy is interacting with American culture, some good, some bad. But it is a topic well worth the thought. Of course, like Americans, we’d like to have a plan and a model for how to do this – but that would not be Orthodox. Unless…..

  8. Mary Lowell Avatar

    [Attention. Fr. Stephen. Sorry, please post this version with corrected use of “ethnos” instead of “ethos”. I’m going to quit these posts. I am just not smart enough to get it right the first time. Please forgive.]

    Question, Father? I have been under the impression that the first evangelists took with them the form of worship native to Judea, which would include music, i.e. chant of the Jewish temple worship in Jerusalem. You can hear echoes of this in the synagogues today that reverberate throughout the Orthodox world and in every ethnos. As the ear of the evangelized picked up those haunting beauties and internalized them, they translated them unconsciously into their accidentally ethnos, whatever and wherever that was, Armenia, Malabar, Georgia, Thessalonica, Rome, Abyssinia, Kiev … so here we are in America, what’s the problem?

    All these echoes can be found in a single parish sometimes. We don’t need to look for our most authentically “native” roots to find an appropriate musical ethnos. And what would that be, West African? The first Africans touched these shores ahead of the shape note singers.

    I am in an Antiochian parish, and you should hear our mostly convert choir try to sound Syrian “Byzantine.” It is just impossible, but what comes out is still something lovely, though quite unlike what the arranger meant when he put down notes to represent what he heard from the cradle, from his father at the cleros and his father’s father and so on.

    My point is, leave it alone. All these sonic beauties, with which we have been so richly blessed from every quarter of the earth where Orthodox people have been dispersed, will make a well in the America ear and be organically translated by our own sonic memory, whatever that is (I fear for the process that if manipulated too much with “native” antecedents may end up back at Graceland). To me it has been a great, great thrill to sing Bulgarian melodies along with Serbian, Greek, Syrian, Kievan and so on. I now recognize the Georgian chant you posted today as my own, as melody of my native land, the Orthodox nation in America, an embassy of the Kingdom of God. My only worry about Her music is that people worry about how to adapt it. I say adopt it as best you can! That’s what the Bulgar converts did and the Rus after hearing the choirs in Hagia Sophia. What we make of it may carry the spice of other lands and times, but to hear converts choirs do it, even cradle choirs a few generations removed from Smolensk, it’s a new thing already, already Americanized, but hopefully with echoes so deeply embedded in it that we will still recognize the melodies of the Angelic Host in the sky over Bethlehem.

  9. Peter Gardner Avatar

    My priest was originally trained as a musician, and so has made numerous arrangements of Russian Church music for our choir to sing. In some of his harmonizations, especially the more recent ones, you can hear the open chords of the Sacred Harp peeking through.

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    St. John Maximovitch felt that the best way to incarnate the faith in a land was to ventrate the local saints. We have quite a few for the United States. Two of the best, IMO are St. John himself and St. Raphael of Brooklyn, Shepard of the lost sheep of America. What could possibly be more American than a saint of Brooklyn.

  11. AR Avatar

    A lot of good thoughts.

    Josh and I have been reading Eliot’s Christianity and Culture, and we’re pretty convinced that religion creates culture rather than the other way around.

    So perhaps we will not have a distinctively American Orthodoxy until we have a fairly Orthodox America.

    Which means that the duty of Orthodox people is mostly to be the best Christians they can be. Perhaps that’s what everyone is getting at in common here: becoming programmatic, taking the short-term view, is neither wise nor Orthodox. For the present America is sated with the pop Christianity we’re swimming in. But the darker everything else gets the brighter the Church will shine. Surely there’s no reason why this (young) nation’s mindest can’t shift in a couple of centuries as long as we remained concerned with being Orthodox first and American second. And once that happens, an ‘American’ Orthodoxy will naturally emerge.

    Note: Father Stephen, we finally found a parish within driving distance. It’s Antiochan and if everything goes well we will probably be Chrismated in the Spring. We want to thank you for your part in helping us find the Church that is still true. It was a very large part.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think that your observations about culture are largely true for a variety of reasons. Both that we are small, and second the culture is an almost complete new phenomenon. But God is good in all things, and if we’re faithful in what we do, He’ll make us what we should be if there’s something we don’t see now. Very likely the need to ask the question about Orthodoxy, culture, and inculturation (what do we do?) is fairly uniquely American itself. What do we do, how do we do it, etc.

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The sermon in my parish today concentrated on the unimportance of external things (such as circumcision) and distinguishing exterals from essentials, transient from eternal. My priest referred to the anonymous second century Christian writing, “The Epistle to Diognetus” I quote a particularly relevant part:

    “For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

    To sum up all in one word–what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world. The invisible soul is guarded by the visible body, and Christians are known indeed to be in the world, but their godliness remains invisible. The flesh hates the soul, and wars against it, though itself suffering no injury, because it is prevented from enjoying pleasures; the world also hates the Christians, though in nowise injured, because they abjure pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and [loves also] the members; Christians likewise love those that hate them. The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens. The soul, when but ill-provided with food and drink, becomes better; in like manner, the Christians, though subjected day by day to punishment, increase the more in number. God has assigned them this illustrious position, which it were unlawful for them to forsake.”

    To me we are at great risk of mistaking what is of the body, so to speak, for what is of the soul if we consciiously try to “Americanize” the Church.
    We are American, if we allow the leven of the Holy Spirit to work in us, the result will be American. However, if we try to take a loaf off the shelf and altar it to suit our own reciepe, we will likely ruin the loaf altogether.

    Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven…

  14. handmaidmaryleah Avatar

    and the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand…
    each one of us is part of that recipe and an inheritor of it,
    which is why I still think it will take generations of Orthodox living their faith and passing it on for the Liturgical arts in this country to have a definitive character of their own that says: American Orthodoxy.
    It s a marathon, not a sprint.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar


    After careful reflection the past week or so, I’ve come to the conclusion that the concern for Americanization is just, well, American. If we see a goal, we like to figure how to get there – then how to get there quicker, which, in many respects runs counter to the mind of Orthodoxy. You’re right, it will take time.

    Though I will say that I think the Epistle to Diognetus underplays the body and overplays the soul. There’s a reason it’s not in the canon. But your use of it here seemed quite right, as I’m sure it was in the sermon in your parish.

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, followed to its logical conclusion the epistle could become either passive fatalism or even gnostic. However, when there is an over emphasis on the body to the exclusion of the soul which, IMO, a lot of the quests for an “American Orthodoxy” suffer from, it is a useful reminder. It is always difficult to maintain the balance. Many, if not all, heresy comes from tipping the balance a certain direction and staying there. It is quite difficult for our poor finite minds to accept God Incarnate as man without confusion, without mixture, is it not?

    The American mind is not comfortable with mystery.

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