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A Review of
Nearly Orthodox: On Being a Modern Woman in An Ancient Tradition
Angela Doll Carlson
Paperback: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2014
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Reviewed by Amy Gentile
When I first heard about Angela Doll Carlson’s book, I was drawn to it immediately: Nearly Orthodox: On Being a Modern Woman in an Ancient Tradition. Everything about that resonated with me. Like the author, I too am a convert to Orthodoxy and, despite having been a convert for four and a half years now, “nearly Orthodox” feels like an apt description of the reality I inhabit. On some deep level, I know that I am Orthodox, and I am working on trying to gain an Orthodox phronema (mindset), but I also recognize that I have been very heavily shaped by my past religious traditions and experiences, and that sometimes that makes me feel a little bit on the outside edge of Orthodoxy. It was refreshing to hear my story echoed in these pages, but I was also enriched by the places where our stories differed, and the ways in which her Catholic (as opposed to my Protestant) upbringing uniquely shaped each of our journeys. I am pleased to read Carlson’s journey and for the perspective it gives me on my own—and I think this would be true for anybody whose faith has morphed and been continually renewed through the years, not just for Orthodox converts.
I’ve read several of these “spiritual memoirs” in the past year, but this one had a very different flavor to it. Perhaps the most distinctive thing about this book is that it is not written linearly. It shifts and switches from the author’s past experiences of Catholicism and her life growing up, to her theological musings, to discussions of Orthodox theology with her priest, to Orthodox practices at work in her own life. This unique structure is both an asset and a detriment at times. Despite the fact that it was neatly organized into three sections, there were several chapters where I felt it was a little unclear why all the events were being put together—the connections didn’t always seem obvious. Additionally, I struggled a little bit to understand the full picture of her life, since it was told in bits and pieces instead of in chronological order.
That being said, in other ways, this atypical structure itself reminded me of Orthodoxy. If I look back, I can see how my own journey to Orthodoxy wove and wound itself through every element of my life. To be sure, there were set points when I, like the author, began attending Liturgy regularly, became a catechumen, or was received. But when I look back, I, like Carlson, tend to organize things in a nonlinear fashion—according to themes instead of chronology. For Carlson, Orthodoxy is the connective thread between her past and present experiences. I too can see the seeds of Orthodox thought scattered even in some of the earliest parts of my faith development—questions that stayed deep with me that found their answers in Orthodoxy. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that my questions found an echo in Orthodoxy, not clear answers. This is the sense that I get also from Carlson’s book. She discusses various “stumbling blocks” in her conversion process, wrestles with what it means to be a modern woman, a feminist, a tattoo-marked, self-described punk in a church that is so traditional. These things are not neatly resolved, but Carlson finds that there is room, too, for these questions and aspects of her identity in Orthodoxy.
Although there were a few moments that I felt frustrated with the more thematic organization, with my stumbling and grasping to hold onto a complete picture of the author’s life and journey, I also recognize that—intentionally or unintentionally—this too is a mirror of the Orthodox life. This book is no theological treatise, no clear-cut explanation of how the author found all the answers she was seeking. She didn’t. There are questions left open and unresolved, and you are left without doubt that this is a process that is ongoing. This book is a beginning, not an ending. As the author notes, “In some ways, though, I’ll always be just nearly Orthodox, no matter how long I practice the Creed or how much I read to try to understand the Liturgy or the canons or the saying of the church fathers. Becoming Orthodox was not about gaining a prize…it was the first step on a long lifetime road…” (290)
I love reading stories like Carlson’s because they remind us to recognize faith as a long journey, as something that continues ever on. In life, and especially in faith, things are not fixed, but fluid, not a fortress of carefully hewn and perfectly laid theological bricks, but a flowing river that has swept each of us into its currents. Reading the stories of others not only helps us to better understand our fellow traveling partners; they give us insight and perspective for our own roads. Angela Doll Carlson’s is just one voice among many, but a voice attesting to a unique and somewhat mysterious tradition. Like this book, Orthodoxy is a journey of beauty and poetry, weaving and wrapping its way throughout all of one’s life. It is a journey that is never fully completed, one that leaves us feeling as though we are always just “Nearly Orthodox.”
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com