REVIEW: We Came, We Saw, We Converted

by Tom Breen

Orthodox Christianity has a tradition of saints who are known as fools-for-Christ, people who have attacked the sin of pride by behaving in ways that seem, to the casual observer, insane. To date, there is no tradition in Orthodoxy of wiseguys-for-Christ, which is a shame: that would be handy category for Fr. Joseph Huneycutt.

A Houston-based priest, blogger, and podcaster, Fr. Joseph’s book We Came, We Saw, We Converted is more or less the perfect template of a “holy wiseguy”: filled with wry asides, surreal dream sequences and silly song parodies, it wears the guise of humor but in reality contains a payload of genuine, moving Christian spirituality.

That description probably makes the book seem like a well-intentioned but limp attempt at “Christian humor,” but make no mistake: Fr. Joseph is a seriously funny guy. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in this book, ranging from a parishioner’s distress at an observant family’s wild children (“They are very, very faithful – attending every service – much to the disappointment of most of the congregation”) to a recounting of a visit the youthful Huneycutt made to a Pentecostal church in North Carolina.

The latter episode qualifies as some of the funniest writing about American religion in years, from the moment “Uncle Ernie” gets the Spirit and begins running laps around the building to the unbelievable climax of the episode. I won’t spoil the surprise, but the “special guest” Huneycutt feared was a snake in a box turns out to be something so bizarre it could have sprung from the collective brain of the Monty Python gang.

The book laces together personal memories, stories from the life of a priest, and fictional episodes to form a set of tales about what it’s like to be an Orthodox convert in a country where “Orthodox” is usually understood to mean “Jewish men with old-fashioned hats” and where a hearty “Christos Anesthi” is more likely to be met with “gesundheit” than “Alithos Anesthi.”

Fr. Joseph, raised a Baptist in North Carolina, has both the All-American background (he even played high school football) and the priestly credibility to tell this story. Unmistakably an Orthodox book (there’s a whole section on fasting), it’s also a breeze for people who don’t know their orthopraxia from their orthodontist.

Because he’s a good storyteller and a perceptive observer, the book is not a triumphalist trashing of other faiths (although Uncle Ernie might want to have a quiet word), and is clear-eyed about some of the challenges Orthodoxy faces in the U.S.

The book tackles the uneasy co-existence between the Orthodox from recent immigrant communities and the “white boy” Orthodox converts who often display their new faith in ostentatious ways. He’s also particularly hilarious when interviewing a fictional antagonist named Fr. Danislav, who extolls the blessed quiet of an empty church and offers helpful tips on how to drive less-than-perfect believers away.

“He loved crossing his legs more than he loved obedience,” Fr. Danislav gravely concludes of one irreverently comfortable malefactor.

Underneath the belly laughs, though, Fr. Joseph explains Orthodoxy in clear, concise manner: prayer, fasting, devotion to the saints, participation in the life of the church, and above all, following Christ.

“Please, Greeks, listen up,” he writes. “Culture will not save you. Arabs: Food will not save you. Russians: Vodka will not save you.” Pretty funny, right? It is, until he gets to the heart of the matter: “Only love saves.”

It’s enough to make you remember that first part of “wiseguy” is “wise.”

Tom Breen is author of The Messiah Formerly Known as Jesus

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