Alumnus Publishes Book with Oxford University Press

Virginia Nieuwsma

A graduate of the Class of 2003, The Very Rev. Dr. Oliver Herbel also earned a doctorate in Historical Theology from Saint Louis University. He is the author of Sarapion of Thmuis: Against the Manichaeans and Pastoral Letters as well as multiple articles and book chapters, many of which concentrate on Orthodox Christianity in America. He serves as the priest of Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church (Orthodox Church in America) in Fargo, ND, and is also a chaplain in the North Dakota Air National Guard. His newly-released book with Oxford University Press is titled Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church.

Can you give us a snapshot of your spiritual and academic journey?

I graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, went on to earn an M.A. in the history of Christianity from Luther Seminary, an M.Div. from St. Vladimir's Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Saint Louis University (SLU). Though I was not church-shopping outside of the Lutheran church, I learned about Orthodoxy from professors at Concordia College and became Orthodox while yet a student at Luther Seminary.

What's this new book about, and why did you write it?

Recent years have seen increasing numbers of Protestant and Catholic Christians converting to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. In this book I examined Christian converts to Orthodoxy who served as exemplars and leaders for convert movements in America during the twentieth century. These convert groups included Carpatho Rusyns, African-Americans, and Evangelicals.

Religious mavericks have a long history in America—a tradition of being "anti-tradition," if you will. Paradoxically, American converts to Orthodoxy have exemplified this independence by choosing their own religious path, yet have rejected individualism by embracing an ancient form of Christianity. Drawing on archival resources including Rusyn and Russian newspapers, unpublished internal church documents, personal archives, and personal interviews, my book presents a close examination of the theological reasons for these conversions, and outlines the reasons others have been persuaded to follow them. I've attempted to offers the first serious investigation of this conversion trend in American religion, including the first in-depth investigation of African-American Orthodoxy.

How did your time at St. Vladimir's Seminary shape the work you are doing today?

I am very appreciative of my time at SVOTS. My thesis work with Dr. Bouteneff and my classroom work with Fr. John Behr both helped further my research and writing skills,Click on image to order Turning to Tradition from Oxford University PressClick on image to order Turning to Tradition from Oxford University Press which led me to pursue a Ph.D. Director of Field Education Dr. Rossi has been (and continues to be) an inspiration to Lorie and me. Indeed, he has been one of those people in my life that has helped me think through some pastoral situations and for that I am quite grateful.

Initially, when I went to Saint Louis University (SLU) for my doctorate, I plunged into Patristics, building upon work I had started at St. Vladimir's. After a year at SLU, however, I came to realize that American Orthodoxy was much more interesting to me. I had begun researching Fr. Nicholas Bjerring, the first convert priest in America (1870) and after a couple of lively conversations with former St. Vladimir's Dean Fr. John Erickson (who visited St. Louis in order to speak at Eden Seminary), I realized I needed to make Patristics my secondary area and American Christianity my primary area of research. It worked out well. I published a book on a fourth century Egyptian bishop, St. Sarapion, and wrote a dissertation on American converts.

I became increasingly interested in the larger pattern of conversions and believed a work that investigated the leaders of our larger convert movements could help place Orthodox conversions in their American theological context. The dissertation led to this book, Turning to Tradition.

In order to develop the monograph, I had to do quite a bit post-doc editing as well as additional research. The sources were not always easy to acquire but for the first time, we are now able to situate the phenomenon of American Orthodox conversions within the history of American Christianity. This is not to say this book "explains" any and all converts. It does not do that and, in fact, I do not entirely find myself in my own book (for I am a convert too), but I do think it fairly assesses our larger movements.

Tell us a bit about the hats you wear: Rector of Holy Resurrection, Chaplain in the Air National Guard, author, and academic.

Being an academic, priest, and chaplain certainly forces one to triangulate one's time; serving as a mission priest in a small parish has allowed for this. To a large degree, in fact, it has required it. Mission priests generally subsidize their parishes by working secular jobs and/or their spouses subsidize the parishes by working secular jobs.

In my case, Lorie's job keeps the bread on the table, but I have also been blessed to have taught some courses at two local colleges as an adjunct, and I also dedicate some free time to pursue research and writing. The amount of time I can commit to such academic work can vary quite a bit, especially as I am also a volunteer fencing coach, and that tends to eat up most of what free time I do have outside of parish and chaplaincy duties.

A couple years ago, I revisited the topic of military chaplaincy with Lorie, something I had felt drawn to since seminary. Together, we determined that God did seem to be calling us there. It turned out to be providential in many ways: lower enrollment had cancelled my adjunct work and I was desiring additional ministry and counseling training. I have been blessed to be able to benefit from military and chaplaincy training and have acquired skills useful for parish ministry.

All three dimensions have even begun to overlap, as the next book project I am working on is an examination of Orthodox Christianity and religious freedom in America. This will include some discussion of military chaplaincy and include some comparison to the Roman Catholic experience, helping to highlight how it is Orthodox Christians have engaged (and been shaped by) our American context on this issue. 

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