Eastern Christianity is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of NT Scholars

This summer I’m doing an independent study on Paul with a few students. One of the students (who knows her church history) noted today that certain Paul scholars have a tendency to use “eastern Christianity” as a construct on which to project all the mysterious, wonderful things that “western Christianity” has failed to be. “Ah, I know what I’m saying might sound strange,” these scholars assure us, “but that’s because you’re trapped in the blind alleys of the western church. In the eastern church [cue the sound of Eastern Orthodox monks chanting] they’ve always understood this.” The problem with these claims is that they are rarely based on evidence, such as actual eastern texts or liturgy. The eastern church is the mysterious other that embodies all that we could be if we just broke out of our Augustinian/Thomist/juridical/Latin/(counter)Reformation (fill in the blank) straitjackets.

I love the eastern fathers, and I’ve learned a lot from contemporary Eastern Orthodox theologians, so I’m not suggesting for a moment that we in the west don’t have much to learn (though sometimes NT scholars blame things on “the western church” which are also common in the east – such as Marian piety – or name theological foci as more or less exclusively eastern – such as theosis – which are found in distinctively western figures as well). Again, the trouble is not in seeing that we have a lot to learn from the east. The trouble is the way NT scholarship treats the east like a manic pixie dream girl.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a stock character in movies, was defined by film critic Nathan Rabin to describe Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown:

Dunst embodies a character type I like to call The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (see Natalie Portman in Garden State for another prime example). The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is not given any purpose or inner life of her own. She exists only to help a male character break out of his boring, despondent ways so he can grow up and let loose and see how cool life really is. She is not a real person. (Here’s a video with a helpful critique).

I’m tempted to talk about the analogous role of Catholicism in much Pauline studies (the two-dimensional bad guy! No matter what he says, he’s wrong), but I’ll quit while I’m ahead.