‘Meteors on a Moonless Night’ or ‘Singles’ Awareness Day’

Today is Valentine’s Day. You know this already. If you didn’t know it when you woke up, you were surely reminded by the waterfall of love-themed Facebook posts flooding your news feed. Poring over your friends’ comments and statuses, you might have noticed that while many people take Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to celebrate romantic love, others are more sarcastic. Some people jokingly refer to it as ‘Singles’ Awareness Day’. Valentine’s Day is when the romantically involved celebrate their relationships, but it’s also the day where everyone else is awkwardly compelled to reflect on their own singleness. That reflection is often uncomfortable, because of the surprising way our culture usually talks about romantic love. It struck me recently that even though our modern culture is usually wary and stand-offish when it comes to religion, there is one thing which many secular people still talk about using very religious language: romantic love.

Obviously, we moderns don’t build literal temples to Cupid and burn roses drenched in virgin’s blood on his altars; that’s not what I mean when I say that we treat romance ‘religiously’. I only mean that the way we moderns talk about romantic love is the same way religious people talk about God or the gods or the cosmos. Take for example, this exchange from the romantic comedy called ‘Fools Rush In’ (1997), starring Matthew Perry  (Alex) and Salma Hayek (Isabel):

Alex: This morning I couldn’t decide between a hamburger and a tuna melt. But my life made perfect sense. Now I know exactly want I want, but my life makes no sense. Somewhere between tuna melt and your aunt’s tamales, life lost meaning and gained a purpose.
Isabel: What are you saying?
Alex: I am saying … This is morning I was worried I’d met the girl of my dreams at the drycleaners and not recognised her. But you – you are what I never knew I always wanted. I’m not even sure what that means, but I think it has something to do with the rest of my life!(emphasis added) Continue reading

The One whom you worship without knowing (Pt. 3)

Can we harmonise our popular films, TV shows and novels with Christ?

Can we harmonise our popular films, TV shows and novels with Christ?

There’s a touching story about a letter C.S. Lewis received from a mother with a worried child called Laurence. Laurence was worried because he felt that he loved Aslan (a fictional representation of Jesus in Lewis’ Narnia stories) more than the real Jesus. In his reply, Lewis said: “Laurence can’t really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that’s what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before.” This is the consequence of the patristic attitude to secular literature we discussed in Part 1. When someone encounters Christ in another form, the Church’s job is not to tear down and condemn that apprehension because it is ‘pagan’ or ‘secular’; it is rather to build on that link, and to declare to them the true name of ‘the One whom they worship without knowing’ (Acts 17:22). There are few people nowadays who cannot point to a favourite movie or novel; we should never underestimate the power (and the sheer, humble honesty) of acknowledging that even though a work might not be produced by the Church, it still reflects Christ Himself in its own way. And maybe, just maybe, the things which a person loves about that work, are features of Christ Himself.

A sceptical reader might be wondering how popular culture, with all its violent special effects and promiscuity, could possibly reflect anything of true spiritual worth. Granted, as the fathers advised, we’ll have to do a lot of ‘pruning’ and ‘culling’ to get at the spiritual truth in popular culture. But a basic understanding of the universal structure of narratives (especially as it’s revealed in modern movies and books) reveals some surprising things. The mythologist Joseph Campbell (in The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and Hollywood executive Christopher Vogler (in The Writer’s Journey) are the two authors most responsible for promoting the idea of a ‘mythic structure’ or ‘monomyth’: a core structure which is present in almost all works of fiction in human history. Let me present a summarised version of this structure; as you read, think of your favourite movies or novels and see whether you can detect the same pattern in them. In brackets next to each stage, I’ve put the corresponding part of the Christian story of salvation:

  1. The Ordinary World: the hero’s homeland, where all is well. (Eden)
  2. Call to Adventure: the ordinary world is threatened by an evil force. (‘Death enters into the world by the envy of the Devil’)
  3. The Journey: the hero embarks on a quest to save what is threatened; he encounters many trials along the way. (The Incarnation)
  4. The Trial: the hero makes a terrible sacrifice or comes into extreme personal danger at the hands of the enemy. All seems lost. (The Cross)
  5. Resurrection: the hero’s sacrifice pays off. He is not killed, but ‘rises’ with new and greater power to defeat the evil force. (The Resurrection of Christ and the founding of the Church on His Blood)
  6. Return: the evil force is defeated and the hero returns to his homeland (the Second Coming and Heaven) Continue reading

Seeing Christ in Pop Culture Pt. 2 – Why should servants bother?

We saw in Part 1 that some great Church Fathers think a lot of good can be gained from the study of pagan and secular literature. They certainly haven’t encouraged us to only ever read things which the Church itself produces; they encourage us to read widely, but to use discernment. The question that then presents itself is this: why bother? Why bother digging through imperfect reflections to find what we already have in the Scriptures?

"I became all things to all men that I might by all means save some." (1 Cor 9:22)

“I became all things to all men that I might by all means save some.” (1 Cor 9:22)

Before we get onto the reasons, I think it’s important to emphasise that for many in the Church, there is no need to turn to secular texts; some find all that they need for their life and service in the Scriptures and works internal to the Church. There is nothing wrong with that. But there are good reasons for making sure that at least some servants make the effort to trace the silhouette of Christ in non-Christian texts.

One of the most important reasons is for the work of evangelism. It would be a mistake to think that the only proper targets for evangelism are people outside the Church. Evangelism means taking the Gospel to places where it is not, and that is something which we often have to do among cradle Orthodox as well as to non-Christians. No-one is ‘born Christian.’ It’s not hard to tell that we are losing large numbers of youth who grew up as churchgoing children; the reasons are complicated and varied, but at least part of the problem is that there is a disconnect between Western youth culture and the culture prevalent in immigrant Orthodox Churches. The situation of the Church in the West trying to reach its youth is much like the situation of St. Paul trying to preach Christianity to the Greeks; there are cultural barriers which have to be bridged before serious communication can begin to happen.

The use of secular culture is an important part of breaking down cultural barriers in evangelism. Take this famous instance from Acts 17 as a paradigm example. St. Paul, speaking to the Athenians says:

“… as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:

TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.

Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you …” (Acts 17:22)

Elsewhere, St. Paul famously said “I became all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Cor 9:22). That’s precisely what he does in Acts 17. He claims that the ‘Unknown God’ whom the Greeks had longed to know, the great mystery in whom they ‘live and move and have their being, as some of their own poets had said’ (Acts 17:28), was in fact the God of Jesus Christ. Following St. Paul’s example, great churchmen like St. Clement and St. Justin Martyr used the incomplete reflections of Christ which were already contained in Greco-Roman culture to speak to the Greeks and Romans. St. Paul became a Greek to the Greeks; I think we should become youth to the youth. Part of that process is finding the reflections of Christ which already exist in their world, and identifying them with Christ.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann once said:

“It is sad and shocking to hear the West globally condemned and to see a condescending attitude towards the “poor Westerners” on the part of young people who, more often than not, have not read Shakespeare and Cervantes, have never heard about St. Francis of Assisi or listened to Bach. It is sad to realize that there is no greater obstacle to the understanding and acceptance of Orthodoxy than the provincialism, the human pride and the self-righteousness of the Orthodox themselves, their almost complete lack of humility and self-criticism. Yet, Truth always makes humble, and pride in all its forms and expressions is always alien to Truth and is always a sin. It is obviously inconceivable to say that we are “proud of Christ,” but we constantly preach and teach “pride of Orthodoxy.” It is time to understand that if the Orthodox mission is to progress, we must not only transcend and overcome this spirit of self-righteousness, but we must, without denying any genuine value of our Eastern cultural and spiritual heritage, open ourselves towards Western culture and make our own whatever in it “is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious” (Philip. 4:8). (The Task of Orthodox Theology in America Today

In order to be a truly missionary Church, which speaks to the world around it like St. Paul and St. Clement did, we need to be conversant with the cultures around us. We can (and must) do this without abandoning the claim that Orthodoxy is true, and without embracing things which are depraved or false.

“I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.” (Jn 17:15-18)

On to Part 3: The One whom you worship without knowing, for what that process might look like.

Seeing Christ in Pop Culture Part 1 – What do the Church Fathers say?

How should Orthodox Christians relate to popular culture in their life and service? Should we be staying away entirely from every book, film or song that isn’t produced by the Church, or is there a way to incorporate these things into our life with Christ? This is the first in a three part series on how and why we Orthodox ought to use secular culture in our service. This first part is a survey of what some famous Church Fathers thought about how Christians can learn from non-Christian texts. If you’re not particularly interested in the Church Fathers’ thoughts on secular culture, then you might want to skip to the second and third parts, which are focused on the practical need for ‘Christ-ifying’ popular films, books and TV shows:

Part 2 – Why should servants bother with pop culture at all?

Part 3 – The One whom you worship without knowing

PART I – The Church Fathers: how should Christians read secular works?

Cinemaaustralia

Can we harmonise our popular films, TV shows and books with Christ?

For as long as there have been Christians who could read, there has been a question about how Christians ought to relate to ‘secular’ literature. ‘Secular’ means ‘of the world’, and is opposed to the ‘sacred’ or ‘religious’: for our purposes, it denotes everything which is produced in cultures outside the Church. The Church Fathers had an especial interest in this question, because as educated men, they were required to be familiar with the works and styles of pagan philosophers, historians, rhetoricians, tragedians and comedians. These works were thoroughly pagan which meant they explicitly promoted idolatry (the worship of pagan gods with bloody sacrifices) and often included gratuitous sexual immorality and vice. So what advice did the fathers give their spiritual children on dealing with these works?

It might surprise many modern Christians to learn that some of the most celebrated Church Fathers didn’t encourage their spiritual children to stay away from secular writings entirely; in fact, they sometimes encouraged them to read them as ‘training’ for apprehending the truths of Scripture, provided they approached them with the appropriate wisdom. Even more surprisingly, they often quoted secular writings in their own works.

For the fathers, the Scriptures were the only source of full and complete knowledge about God’s salvation (as far as that knowledge is expressible in human language). But they also believed that God’s grace and truth flowed out upon the whole world, and that righteous pagans had apprehended the truth of Christ partially and incompletely. St. Clement of Alexandria says that “the Greek preparatory culture […] with philosophy itself, is shown to have come down from God to men, not with a definite direction but in the way in which showers fall down on the good land, and on the dunghill, and on the houses.” For St. Clement, God’s truths are very much present in secular culture, albeit not as clearly as in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament Church. He argues that God, “in each age rained down the Lord, the Word. But the times and places which received [such gifts], created the differences which exist.” That is, the truth of Christ is rained down upon all men at all times, but the clarity and accuracy of its reception depended on what people did with it. The Church and the Scriptures were certainly the best sources for learning about God because they were the places where the universal rain of God had caused the strongest and most beautiful trees to grow. But they were not the only place that truth could be found. Continue reading

‘Wondrous Humility’ or ‘Does God have narcissistic personality disorder?’

As Christmas is celebrated this year, thousands of Christians over the world will be offering praise to Christ. But the act of ‘praise’ or ‘worship’, so central to all religions, is something which can make modern, Western minds extremely uncomfortable. There are probably several reasons for this, but one of the central ones is that we feel that any god who demands praise must be a narcissistic tool. In 2009, Catherine Deveny wrote this (pretty entertaining) piece of New Atheist rhetoric where she suggested that the God of ‘monotheistic religion’ suffers from an acute case of narcissistic personality disorder: “a condition in which people have an inflated sense of self-importance and an extreme preoccupation with themselves (source).” Deveny argues that God’s behaviour is typical of an NPD sufferer (NPD for short):

“[NPDs] expect the best but give very little. They cannot love and have no empathy. But they are emotionally needy and crave attention so hone their skills to attract love, admiration and attention to fill a hole inside them that will never be filled. NPDs don’t feel they exist without an adoring fan club …”

An NPD’s chief fault is that he has a pathological need for praise, because it temporarily numbs a (false and rather tragic) sense of inferiority. So they amass wealth and resources (e.g. political or military power, wealth, fame) and then share out benefits in small amounts to anyone willing to exchange them for some praise or adoration. The practice is distasteful because it’s all entirely self-serving on both sides; the NPD cares nothing for the people around them in themselves because he only wants their adoration. And his followers provide him with praise, not because he deserves it, but because they want what he can give them. Both sides are ultimately in it for themselves and neither of them are being honest about their motivations.

"You descended from Your Heavenly Glory to our humility and consented to be born in a manger ..." (Prayer before Communion)

“You descended from Your Heavenly Glory to our humility and consented to be born in a manger …” (Prayer before Communion)

So is this rather sad situation analogous to Christians and their worship of God? Regardless of what some individual Christians think in their private prayer lives, Christianity’s early history reveals a very explicit rejection of the idea that God needs our praise, or that we could receive benefits from Him in return for the praise we offer Him. Why? Because both those ideas were central beliefs of paganism. Pagans, unlike Christians, believed the gods had no innate care for the human race; they were certainly not gods of ‘love’ in the Christian sense of giving without expecting to receive in return. Historian Everett Ferguson says, “There was a common idea in the ancient world that the deities needed the food and drink sacrificed to them. This was especially so in Rome. Sacrifice was thought of as increasing their supply of numen, which would be used up in helping people.” In other words, the pagan gods would (and could) only give you something if you gave them something in return. Pagan prayers were very explicitly aimed at ‘sealing the deal'; a pagan called Valerius Maximus (1st century CE) described the basic principle behind pagan prayers as follows:  “By ancient practice, attention is paid to the divine: through prayer when anything requires entrusting to the gods; through a vow when a favour is requested; through a ceremony of thanksgiving when a vow is to be paid …”  All pagan prayer is offered with reference to some favour the god has performed. Continue reading

Love and the Meaning of Life

“I just want my life to matter, I want my life to mean something!”

Everyone thinks something like this at some point in their lives. It’s an incredibly human concern that goes far deeper than politics, culture or even religion. Everyone, in their moments of deepest clarity, feels a powerful desire for meaning and significance. But these aren’t the clearest of terms; what does it mean for my life to have meaning? What does it mean for my life to be significant, for my existence to matter?

'To say to another, with all our heart, “I love you”, is to say, “You will never die.”' ~ Met. Kallistos Ware

‘To say to another, with all our heart, “I love you”, is to say, “You will never die.”’ ~ Met. Kallistos Ware

What exactly would make the claim, “My life has meaning” true? To answer that question, it’s helpful to look at the kinds of things we say about ‘meaning’. Before you continue reading, you might want to consider your own answers. Close your eyes and ask yourself, ‘How do I know my life has meaning?’ or ‘How do I know that it matters that I exist?’ Remember the answers if possible; maybe even write them down.

Now compare your answer to this fairly typical statement from a post called “I Want to Matter“, by another, apparently Christian, blogger:

“I desperately want my life to matter.  I want to live my life in such a way that it makes a difference. I want my life to impact the lives of the people around me in a positive way.”  (emphasis added)

Did your answers involve words like difference and impact as well? This certainly doesn’t seem to be a uniquely Christian way of speaking about ‘meaning’. For example, the following is from a very honest and insightful post on the Suicide Project, a site where people post up their ‘suicide stories':

“I have no idea what to do with myself because nothing really matters.  I kind of think that I need to do something earth-shattering, log an amazing accomplishment that will be revolutionize the world and lead to never-ending adulation from others, because then I’d have some feeling of accomplishment and meaning.  But I know that no matter what I do – win a gold medal in the Olympics, get elected President, invent a revolutionary technology and become a billionaire, whatever – none of it will matter to me because nothing is good enough to create any meaning for me.” (emph. mostly added)

Again, it’s assumed that the ‘meaning’ of one’s life is the difference one makes to the world. A life which produces some revolutionary accomplishment is a meaningful life, because it has left the world different than it was before. Perhaps that’s why we often say things like, “I want it to have mattered that I existed. I want the world to be a different place because I was here.” People who feel that their life is making no difference are typically those who suffer from low self-esteem. Suicide can tragically seem like a logical step because the person (falsely) believes that their life is having no effect on the world around them, and so they won’t be missed (‘Would anyone even notice if I was gone?’). Continue reading

A New Heaven and a New Earth

In the last post, I briefly touched on the old Christian idea that the Creation itself would be redeemed and delivered, in and through the redemption and deliverance of mankind itself. It occasioned some interesting discussion, and I wanted to quickly post up some comments by other Church Fathers affirming that on the Christian worldview, the physical Creation will experience the very same redemption that human bodies will.

First up, here’s St. John Chrysostom in his commentary on Romans 8:21: “because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”

He says: “Now what is this creation? Not yourself alone, but that also which is your inferior, and partakes not of reason or sense, this too shall be a sharer in your blessings. For it shall be freed, he says, from the bondage of corruption, that is, it shall no longer be corruptible, but shall go along with the beauty given to your body; just as when this became corruptible, that became corruptible also; so now it is made incorruptible, that also shall follow it too. And to show this he proceeds. (εἰς) Into the glorious liberty of the children of God. That is, because of their liberty. For as a nurse who is bringing up a king’s child, when he has come to his father’s power, does herself enjoy the good things along with him, thus also is the creation, he means. You see how in all respects man takes the lead, and that it is for his sake that all things are made. See how he solaces the struggler, and shows the unspeakable love of God toward man. For why, he would say, do you fret at your temptations? You are suffering for yourself, the creation for you. Nor does he solace only, but also shows what he says to be trustworthy. For if the creation which was made entirely for you is in hope, much more ought thou to be, through whom the creation is to come to the enjoyment of those good things. Thus men also when a son is to appear at his coming to a dignity, clothe even the servants with a brighter garment, to the glory) of the son; so will God also clothe the creature with incorruption for the glorious liberty of the children.

Just as, to the Christian mind, our own corruptible bodies will ‘put on incorruption’, and become like Christ’s glorified body after His Resurrection, the physical creation will be clothed in incorruption. Here’s a link to the rest of that series of homilies.

Next, here is St. Gregory of Nazianzus, from the funeral oration for his brother Caesarius. He describes first, the state of a disembodied soul, awaiting resurrection: Continue reading