This month I had the distinct privilege of being a guest on the “God and Comics” podcast, a great show run by three Episcopalian priests who have a lot of fun talking about (you guessed it!) God and comics. I’ve typed up some of the highlights of our conversation below, and the podcast in its entirety is found in the link above.
Many thanks to Frs. Jonathan Mitchican, Matt Stromberg, and Kyle Tomlin, it was a lot of fun!
FJ: Let’s just jump right into it here. You’re a Greek Orthodox priest. Tell us what that means.
FN: My parents are both from Greece (my mom was born here to Greek immigrants). My dad is an immigrant, my grandparents were from Greece, and in addition to being ethnically Greek, I was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church. I always knew that God existed. Somewhere along the way, one thing led to another and I felt a calling to the priesthood my freshman year in college, and later went to our seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts, the Greek Orthodox seminary. I was ordained to the deaconate in the Greek Orthodox Church in December of 2008 and to the priesthood in August of 2011.
In case anyone doesn’t know what the Greek Orthodox Church is, suffice it to say, in the early Church- the ancient Church, the early Mediterranean, in the Roman Empire- there were five major centers of Christianity: Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria. As you can see kind of from that little “map,” four are in the Eastern Mediterranean and one is in the West. As we know very well, through different circumstances and historical factors, the Church in Rome became eventually known as the Roman Catholic Church over time, and the Churches of the East became known as the Eastern Orthodox Church, and continued on from there. You could even call us an ancient branch of Christianity, going back to Christ and the Apostles as the only “founder” that we have.
There’s a lot more we could say about it, but suffice it to say, we’re a liturgical church, we have sacraments, we have priesthood, and actually if anyone is a fan of C.S. Lewis- the high Anglican theology of the early 20th century, maybe late 19th century- I would say that Orthodoxy is really close to that. There are a lot of similarities between Episcopalianism/Anglicanism (forgive me for interchanging the terms) and the Orthodox Church, at least in the old days, especially.
FJ: Do you have to be Greek to be Greek Orthodox?
FN: No, not at all, forgive me. In fact, there are even churches in the Middle East that are not ethnically Greek that still call themselves Greek Orthodox. It’s actually a term that refers to the New Testament. I thought I might as well throw [ethnic background] in there just to say a little about myself.
Father Kyle: Is there a common fellowship with Russian Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox and so on?
FN: There are several Orthodox Churches you’ve probably heard about: Russian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Ethopian/Eritrean, etc. By in large, the vast majority of those churches… not sure about the term “common fellowship,” that’s probably the same as the term we use: “in communion with one another,” correct?
FN: Okay, so yes, we’re in communion with all those churches. There is a branch of Orthodoxy that after the onset of Islam right around the 5th/6th centuries in the Middle East and Central Asia, a lot of those churches got a little more isolated from the rest of the Eastern Mediterranean, the rest of the Orthodox Church. Over time there was a little bit of an estrangement there with those churches. Originally, our Church assumed that it was because of theological reasons, but in later years it’s been determined that even the theology of those churches is very much in line with ours. For one reason or another, because of historical circumstances we’re not in communion with them. They are what are known as the Oriental Orthodox Church (only because you mentioned Syrian Orthodox, it’s a little different, although… not, if that makes any sense).
Sorry to be a little heavy on the theology right away, forgive me!
Father Matt: No, I think it’s great, and informative to our listeners who may not be familiar. I think in the popular imagination, Eastern Orthodoxy is perceived, as you described it, as an ancient faith, sort of a faith locked in time. Sort of in contrast to that idea, which is accurate in many ways, your blog and your ministry is very much engaged with popular culture. It’s very (to use a term that is popular today) “culturally relevant,” contextual, all these buzz words. Could you talk a little bit about that and the way you see this ancient faith relating to our culture today? Where is the intersection there?
FN: I’m glad to hear it’s relevant, it means I’m doing something right, then! (laughs) I’ll just quote something that was read in our church from our lectionary last Sunday, and that is that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
FN: Even though the faith in that sense, in terms of Who Jesus Christ is never changes, the way the Church packages that message has to change. Maybe even “change” is too strong of a word… it has to adapt. I’m sure that’s something you know very, very well, and in large part, why you’re doing what you’re doing! The message has to be adapted, even though it’s something we believe is eternally true.
In terms of Orthodoxy’s relevance in pop culture today, first of all in this country if you add up all the different Orthodox jurisdictions, we’re still less than 1% of the population. Greek, Russian, everything that was mentioned, we’re 1% of the population. Just in terms of numbers, we’re not as much of a presence as other churches are, even though I heard a statistic on 60 Minutes that we’re the second largest Christian branch in the world.
FJ: And we’re the third, by the way.
FN: See, it helps to have that kind of structure and tradition surrounding you. You’ve managed to be kind of locked in. There are benefits to that, like being able to move everyone one direction. Or rather, moving with everyone one direction.
In any case, in terms of pop culture, it’s something that is pretty foreign to the Church, I think. There are parishes that do a great job with pop culture, there are parishes that don’t do as good of a job (in terms of Greek Orthodox parishes). I think a real reason for that is because so many of our people came to this country as immigrants. You know, refugees from the wars trying to make a better life for themselves in America. It wasn’t as much because of mission work, unless you want to count the Russians who went to Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Pop culture is something the Church has had to emerge into and be a little bit of a voice there. I, as a huge comic book geek, if I wasn’t doing this would probably be writing a comic book blog anyway. I figured, why not do something that would be relevant for ministry?
I noticed when I got to seminary (2004-2008) and began studying theology and thinking of myself becoming a priest, I noticed my interest in comic books increased during that time. I mean don’t get me wrong, as a kid I watched the cartoons, I remember “Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends,” I remember the X-Men cartoon of 1992 that was just huge in the 90s. All that stuff I watched as a kid, and right around that time I remember discovering comic books and saying, “Wait a sec! You’re telling me all these characters came from this??!!” I didn’t even know they existed, it was mind-blowing to me. It was an incredibly cool thing! I got hooked when I was maybe in fourth or fifth grade, and I was into comic books as a kid, but I got out of them by the time I was in high school and early college. It was right around that time, also, that I felt a calling to the priesthood and felt like going into that. So simultaneously, in late college and definitely during seminary I found myself getting back into comic books, which is kind of an unusual thing if you think of it that way- an adult getting into comic books.
In particular, one character that really started resonating with me even more than ever was Superman, way more so than when I was a kid. I’m not exactly sure why, but just something like how much he cares for the people that he helps was hugely inspiring to me. How much of a role model he is, especially in our day and age. One of the things I was less than impressed with about the last movie was all that collateral damage going on with civilians flying all over the place and Superman not really caring kind of was not Superman to me. I kind of wanted a combination of Man of Steel and Superman Returns which both had good things in there. But I digress, maybe we can get into that later.
In addition to that, the origins of the character, how he was started by Jewish immigrants (or at least, Siegel and Shuster’s parents were Jewish immigrants) and everything that was wrapped up in that- the Great Depression, masculinity, all of that stuff just started blowing my mind. Geoff Johns was asked in one of the documentaries he was on, one of the DVD extras for one of the DC movies I think, what Superman’s greatest power is in your opinion. He said it’s not flight, it’s not super-strength, it’s not x-ray vision, it’s not heat vision, it’s none of the things that we geeks inevitably argue about. His greatest power is that he always does the right thing. Something about that as I was becoming, or taking steps to answer the call to the priesthood, really, really started resonating me, really touching me.
I think during seminary I was probably going to the comic book shop every week and buying multiple titles (as much as my budget could support, anyway). You’d think that a theology student would be going the opposite direction, right? We’d get all into the clouds talking about who God is, and I was definitely doing that too, but there was this incredible draw into comic books, and especially superheroes. I like all forms of comic books, but I definitely love superheroes and certainly a new love of Superman in my adulthood.
As was mentioned earlier (and thanks for the shoutout, Fr. Kyle), “Superman: Peace on Earth” is probably my favorite conventional Superman story ever. Like I said, I was a fan in the 90s, so the “Death and Return of Superman” will always have a special place in my heart- it was absolutely earth-shattering when it first came out, I bought the Omnibus two years ago, reread it, still holds up great, so Death and Return of Superman was fantastic, but it’s not a “conventional” Superman story. In terms of just basic, a “day in the life” of Superman, “Peace on Earth” is a great, great snapshot of exactly what I’m talking about. He’s moved to compassion when he sees a starving woman in the snow during Christmastime in Metropolis, to the point where he wants to eliminate all hunger on earth for one day. Just an incredible message! It’s incredible in its simplicity, and it’s incredible for us as Christians when we talk about feeding the world and making the world a better place.