1. Most of us are familiar with the name "St. Athanasius Academy," but we're less familiar with who you are. Can you refresh our memories by telling us a bit about your ministry--how it was started, the role Fr. Jack Sparks played for years, and what your focus is today?
People ask me about who I am. Yet please know, even after I tell you something about myself, I am only trying to be a worthy mouthpiece for that which Fr. Jack Sparks and Fr. Richard taught me, along with the spiritual insight gain from working with them on the OSB-Septuagint Old Testament Project, published in 2008. These men were profound influences in my life and their love for Christ Jesus and His teachings, remains with me and saved my life in times of great illness. My name is Paul Goetz and began working with St. Athanasius Academy after first meeting Fr. Jack Sparks and Fr. Jon Braun in Los Gatos, CA in 1992. I later met Fr. Richard Ballew in 1993, and this sealed within me the need and commitment to change priorities. I left my chosen profession of 15 years and began working with Fr. Jack while the Academy was yet in Ben Lomond. In 1996, we followed Fr. Jack and the Academy to Elk Grove, CA, joining forces with Fr. Richard Ballew. It is here that I completed the Academy’s Correspondence Program and began working with Fr. Jack on grading prisoner-student lessons through the Academy’s Prisoner Education Project. Early 1998, the Academy, with the blessing of Metropolitan Philip, began work on the translation of the Greek Old Testament Septuagint – the Bible of the Orthodox Church – into workable English with Orthodox Study Notes. This would complete the Academy work started with the OSB-New Testament. For me, I was given the opportunity to take care of the day to day operation, while also acting as an internal coordinator for the OSB-Septuagint Study Bible Project. I was also asked to become the full time grader for over 125 active prisoner-students. Soon after, under Fr. Richard Ballew’s careful guidance, I began grading for the Correspondence Division. After the Lord called both Fr. Richard and Fr. Jack, of eternal memory, home, I am now honored to work closely with Fr. Jon Braun and Fr. Peter Gillquist.
Along with our Correspondence Division (its primary focus being the laity), and our Prisoner Education Project, we continue publishing our research. We are providing live classes – even webcam studies – on the Orthodox philosophy of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, Orthodox theology, studies the Book of Romans and the Gospel of John, and monastic principles for non-monastics. Even here, we provide detailed study notes based on the renown Fathers of the Church.
2. Where do you see the Academy going in the next five years?
The Academy recognized early in its work on the OSB-Septuagint Old Testament, that to better grasp, know, and translate the Old Testament from ancient Greek into English, we had to make a strong commitment to better understand and grow in the Orthodox philosophy that guided the Apostles and the Seven Ecumenical Councils. We came to realize that the Western mindset, though good, was insufficient if we wanted our Old Testament translation to say in English, what was being said in the Greek text of the Church, and used by the Apostles to evangelize the world. Thus looking ahead, much of our focus will be in how to help bring this ancient, eastern philosophy to America. The OSB-Septuagint is an excellent start and the only English Bible that speaks from the philosophical perspective of the ancient Church. Our Correspondence studies, research, publications, and classes, reflect this Eastern viewpoint. We further believe that while not the only approach, it the approach best able to fulfill Metropolitan Philip's commission: Bring America home to His Orthodox Church.
We are also aware, by experience, that there is a need to bring these studies to the laity as our Priests and Deacons have their hands full. We are hopeful that the Lord will provide workers to help us bring this work to the laity of His Church, while our Priests, as good shepherds, will guide them to those willing and able to help them build up the people and their faith in Jesus Christ.
3. Tell us about your prison correspondence program. Who coordinates it, how does it work, and what kind of response are you receiving?
Our Prisoner Education - Scholarship Project was first envisioned by two good friends – Fr. Jack Sparks and Fr. Duane Pederson. The idea began with Fr. Pederson’s work and the Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry efforts to introduce prisoners to the hope and promise of the Orthodox Church. Fr. Pederson did this better than most and with a sacrificial love, became dedicated to the salvation of prisoners. Guided by the Lord’s command, while remembered the pleading of the Thief on the Cross, he boldly set out to bring salvation to prisoners, in the name of Jesus Christ. Yet Fr. Duane knew more was needed. He needed his new flock to be built up in the knowledge and understanding of the Antiochian Church. He turned to Fr. Jack for help, and in that instant began a lasting relationship to the glory of God, and the Prisoner Education Project.
The program has been such a success, we have a waiting list with more students than I am able to handle. And they come to us by word-of-mouth. Each month, we grade and return near 120 essay from our 85 prisoner-students. We offer many of the same courses offered through the Correspondence Program, and without a doubt, they have shown that when stripped of earthly possessions, God's strength is being perfected in them. Why? Because they experience God's love for them and now know He will not forsake them. They also learn that if they will turn to Him, seeking His Grace and Truth with a desire to repent and follow His Word, their awareness of His love for them will grow. And with this, the Lord’s promise becomes their hope – to be remembered in His Heavenly Kingdom. For this they are thankful and no longer blame prison, but instead, see how the Lord has used prison to get their attention.
4. How does Orthodox formation "happen," and what is the Academy's approach and philosophy to educating laypeople in Orthodox faith and practice?
This may have been answered before. Yet if I may, let me offer another hope that speaks to newly established missions and newly founded churches. The Academy would love to help these newest of the body of Christ, to become united to each other and their priest, through a common study, using the Academy course to help shape and define Orthodoxy in their lives, individually and as one body. It would seem a wonderful way for the laity to become active members of the Church and united to each other in the glory of Christ and His Kingdom.
5. A tremendous contribution of the Academy has been the Orthodox Study Bible. Any updates on that effort, especially now that the release of the full Study Bible is behind you?
As talked earlier, the OSB-Septuagint is unique in being true to the old-world, Eastern Orthodox perspective, both in translation and in its study notes. The Septuagint is also the true Bible of the Church beginning since around 235 BC., being translated from Hebrew into Greek by 70 Jewish scholars, having no bias against or hatred for Jesus Christ. Thus we hope this Bible will be seen as necessary for a better understanding of the Old Testament. For we believe to know the New, one needs the Old; and to know the Old one needs the New. If this begins to happen, we are hopeful the Church will gradually introduce the Septuagint readings into her liturgical text, thus giving a rightful place to her Bible on the Altars in America. A part of bringing America home to the right worship, is bringing them home the Septuagint Bible St. Augustine so valiantly defended.