Glory and Rubbish is MOVING!

Glory and Rubbish is moving! I’ll be joining a few others at a new online location: This Great Mystery. This new site is something of an experiment – it’s a joint blog, with multiple contributors. (Would you like to be one? Check out the submissions page.)

The main theme of the blog is sacramental living – check out TGM’s opening post to find out what that means. But the main idea is expressed beautifully in this passage from Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World:

“[The liturgy] is the journey of the Church into the dimension of the Kingdom … It is not an escape from the world, rather it is the arrival at a vantage point from which we can see more deeply into the reality of the world.” (p. 27)

In other words, the point of the Church is not simply to take us from this world to another, distant, ethereal one. Too often though, we draw a nice, neat line between our ‘spiritual lives’ and our work, social and leisure lives on the other. This is the kind of life that Schmemann used to call ‘schizophrenic’ – it fails to realise that the world itself is a sacrament (for more on this idea, see Schmemann’s essay ‘World As Sacrament‘). As Bavly Kost (a contributor to This Great Mystery), put it recently on his own blog:

“There is no separation in the life we are called to live within the body of Christ and the life we live for the world. There seems to be this preconceived notion that the sacrament is set out against, or existing outside the rest of life. There is a distinction between the sacred (sacraments) and profane (the world). This notion stands at odds with what Christ established as giving up our lives for the life of the world. The world has been sanctified by his death and resurrection. The idea of profane and sacred has been broken. All that we do and participate in has become sacramental.

That’s the sentiment at the heart of This Great Mystery, and I’d like to think that it was always the sentiment at the heart of this blog too. Although the posts to be featured on This Great Mystery will deal with a wide-range of topics – from science, to popular culture, to music, to psychology, to literature – the point will always be to see how those ‘worldly’ things, those elements of creation, reveal and reflect Christ who lies at their centre.

So if that sentiment strikes a chord with you – if you think you or someone you know would like to be involved – please contact us! It doesn’t matter whether you’ve blogged before or not. There’s a full description of the sorts of things we’re looking for in the link.

See you soon on This Great Mystery!

PS: A big thank you to everyone who floated around Glory and Rubbish! It’s been a lot of fun, and I’ve made some really wonderful connections through it, for which I’m very thankful.

“… for in Him we live and move and have our being …” (Acts 17:28, from Epimenides’ Cretica)

The Coptic Blogosphere

It’s been a long time since I last posted here, mostly because I’ve become ridiculously swamped by annoying things like ‘work’ and ‘education’ (fatuous, empty pursuits that they are). But I’ve been sitting on this one for a while – a brief list of some interesting Coptic blogs. I’ve been putting off publishing it because I keep stumbling across yet other great Coptic blogs, but I can always do a follow up post later with some more. So here, for your enjoyment, is a brief (and far from comprehensive) tour of the Coptic Blogosphere:

What happens when you take an ancient Christian community like the Copts and sprinkle its population in countries which are entirely alien (culturally, linguistically, socially, religiously) to its two-thousand year history? Do the Copts form an impenetrable bubble, draw themselves in and cut themselves off from the evil forces of the strange, new world around it? Sadly, sometimes the answer is yes, and the result is a community which is strong as iron internally, but totally incapable of speaking to the world around it. The bubble becomes a tomb. But the Copts would never have survived 2000 years if they didn’t possess something stronger than the winds of cultural change; we clearly have something which can withstand even the most violent and hostile intellectual and cultural environments. I don’t just mean that Copts are able to survive radical cultural changes by retreating into bunkers; I mean that no matter where you place them, they will find that they have something to say to the culture around them which is relevant and important. And that is no small feat for a two-thousand year old community that has its roots in a time when the Roman Emperor still ruled Egypt and the main alternative to Christianity was not atheism, but  paganism.

The best evidence for this is the ‘Coptic blogosphere’. In this post, I’ve collected a sample (by no means comprehensive) of some of the most interesting and informative Coptic blogs from around the world. I am bound to have missed some good ones though, so please put forward any that I have missed (either your own or blogs that you like) in the comments. I should note that because I’ve limited myself to Coptic blogs here, I’ve left out all the really fantastic blogs from the wider Orthodox world, which would require another post altogether. I’m also immensely proud to point out that there is an equal number of male and female bloggers in the list that follows. So without further ado, here is my whirlwind tour of the Coptic Blogosphere – for each blog, I’ve included one post which I think sums up why their blog is worth reading: Continue reading

Living Icons: St. Ignatius the God-Bearer

The practice of venerating saints makes many modern Christians uncomfortable. “Why can’t we just focus on Christ?” is the typical objection, “Aren’t you making idols out of ordinary people?” And icons depicting the Saints towering over a landscape with a glowing halo only make these concerns seem more poignant. But what this objection misses is that for traditional Christians, the veneration of Saints is a simple consequence of the Incarnation. We believe that God became man so that men might become like God, and the Saints are proof that this has actually happened. They show through their lives that the Incarnation was not mere sophistry or legend, but an actual, concrete union between God and man, which made ordinary men and women glow with the light and love of Divinity. The light streaming out of their haloes in the Icons is none other than the light which streamed forth from Christ’s body at the Transfiguration. Christ wasn’t asserting a contradiction when He said both, “I am the light of the world” and “You are the light of the world.”

St. Ignatius the God-bearer

This notion goes right back to the dawn of Christianity, and we see it reflected perfectly in the life and writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch, whose martyrdom was commemorated in the Coptic Church last Sunday. Ignatius’ story takes place at the very dawn of Christian history, in living memory of the Apostles; he is said to have been a disciple of John the Beloved himself. Despite this incredibly early date, Ignatius’ writings powerfully express the belief that lies at the heart of traditional Christian sainthood: that because of the Incarnation, mortal men bear God’s love and power. You see, St. Ignatius is also called “The God-bearer” (θεοφόρος, theophoros), a word taken from his own writings. He used it to describe all Christians:

“Ye, therefore, as well as all your fellow-travellers, are God-bearers, temple-bearers, Christ-bearers, bearers of holiness, adorned in all respects with the commandments of Jesus Christ …” (Ignatius to the Ephesians, Ch. 9)

Because of the Incarnation, where God dwelt in human flesh, humans can be God-bearers: living, fleshly analogues of the ancient Jewish Temple, of which God said “this is the place of My throne and the place of the soles of My feet …” (Ez. 43:7) And thus, there’s no tension between the veneration of Saints and the worship of Christ; the Saints are “God’s field” and “God’s building” (1 Cor 3:9); He built them like He built the Temple, and adorned them with His own beauty, that the world might admire God through them. Continue reading

Doctor Who and Jesus: making parasite gods blaze

In a recent episode of Dr. Who, the Doctor finds himself standing between a star-sized monster and a planet full of terrified people about to become its prey. The monster feeds off its worshippers’ memories and emotions, depriving them of their most precious joys, griefs and experiences; it literally sucks the colour from their lives. In return for a frequent offering of emotions and life stories, the monster refrained from destroying them utterly, but this year the offering has failed and now the Doctor is the only thing standing between the people and their murderously hungry god. He doesn’t really have a plan at first, but as he begins to speak his mind, a plan forms:

(Thanks to YouTube user Crimson Lining for posting the video – don’t sue us BBC).

From the Doctor’s language, it’s quite possible that the writers intended this to be a criticism of all religions, including Christianity. But that would be ironic, given how unmistakably religious – and (in Christian eyes at least) how unmistakably Christ-like – the Doctor’s actions and words here are.

Attribution: aussiegall

Attribution: aussiegall

Consumed by love for the people behind him, the Doctor decides to feed himself to the monster in their stead. And he has so many memories, and so much knowledge of so many fantastic things, that he hopes the monster will be broken from within by consuming him; he claims to contain knowledge “that will make parasite gods blaze.”

Compare that image to this one from St. Cyril of Jerusalem, writing in the 4th century, where Death is described as a monster hiding in the Jordan River, that Christ destroys by baptism (a symbol of His death and resurrection):

“According to Job, there was in the waters the dragon that draweth up Jordan into his mouth. Since, therefore, it was necessary to break the heads of the dragon in pieces, He went down and bound the strong one in the waters, that we might receive power to tread upon serpents and scorpions. The beast was great and terrible. No fishing-vessel was able to carry one scale of his tail: destruction ran before him, ravaging all that met him.The Life encountered him, that the mouth of Death might henceforth be stopped, and all we that are saved might say, O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (Catechetical Lecture 3.11, On Baptism)

In this image, like the scared worshippers behind the Doctor, we were helpless and prone before the great and terrible beast of Death. But when Christ desired to save us, He didn’t send “an archangel, an angel, or a cherubim or a prophet” – He came to Earth as a man, and stood before the monster Himself. He allowed it to eat Him, and bury Him in its dark belly along with eons of human dead. But because He was Life itself, He could not die, and Death was forced to vomit up all the dead of ancient times. St. Cyril said elsewhere:

[Christ’s] body therefore was made a bait to death that the dragon, hoping to devour it, might disgorge those also who had been already devouredFor Death prevailed and devoured; and again, God wiped away every tear from off every face. (Catechetical Lecture 12.15)

Exactly like the Doctor, Christ feeds Himself to the monster and breaks it open from within. This image of Christ as bait to the dragon of death seems (lamentably) to have faded from modern talk about Christianity. For ancient Christians and their modern descendants, the Cross is where God who is Life slays Sin which is Death. The Death from which man is saved isn’t God’s anger or His oppression; St. Athanasius said that God saw man’s death from sin as monstrous and unfitting (even though it was an inevitable consequence of human wickedness). “It was impossible,” he said, “that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself.” (De Inc. 2.1) And so, precisely like the Doctor, unwilling to let the innocents behind him die at the parasite god’s hands, Christ put Himself in Death’s way by dying Himself as a human, and so breaking death’s hold on the human race forever. Continue reading

Sons of the Living God

“What is Christianity? Likeness to God as is possible for human nature. If you are shown to be a Christian, hasten to become like God, put on Christ.” ~ St. Basil, (On the Origin of Humanity 1, Ch. 18)

What do Christians mean when they talk about humans being made in the ‘Image of God’? Like everything in Christianity, the doctrine of the Imago Dei has been discussed and interpreted many times over, but at its core, it’s a powerfully simple idea: human beings have the unique privilege of being able to reflect God’s own beauty and power.

Source: Eric McGregor

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” ~ CS Lewis (Source: Eric McGregor)

On the face of it, this idea is pretty out of step with reality. The dreary herd of commuters with whom we trek to work every morning certainly don’t seem like a pantheon of brilliant gods and goddesses; they’re an unwieldy and rather annoying bunch, who cough too loud and would sooner let you be beaten to death than acknowledge your existence. And then there are those of us who seem not only un-godlike, but positively demonic: serial murderers, rapists, war criminals. When faced with the horror of an Auschwitz or a Hiroshima, it’s hard not to conclude that if we bear the image of any god, that god must be a foul and violent monster.

But no Christian believes that human violence and brutality is the fruit of beings who bear the perfect image of God. The whole Christian worldview, especially for the early Church, revolved around the idea that humanity had damaged the Image of God and so turned themselves from radiant beauties into bestial monsters. In St. Athanasius’ view, it was precisely when we lost the Image of God through an act of cosmic rebellion that evil entered the world: “Adulteries and thefts were everywhere, murder and rapine filled the earth, law was disregarded in corruption and injustice …” (De Inc. 1.4) In the wake of this spiritual catastrophe, the world is now full of creatures more dangerous than either gods or beasts: fallen gods; gods gone mad.

And that’s why, as St. Basil says above, the whole purpose of Christianity is to make men again like God. We plunged ourselves and our world into chaos by being unlike God; only being like Him can heal us. This transformation is something all humans must go through. Even the best of us do things every day which feed into the hideous cycle of injustice and suffering that afflicts the world; there’s a part of all of us that wants to keep every good thing to ourselves and enforce the tyranny of our will over others. The whole life of the Church, from its sacraments to its prayers, is aimed at slaying these destructive, ungodly impulses, and so restoring the Image of God to our inward persons.

For St. Athanasius, humanity was like a damaged portrait which needed to be repainted:

“You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself …” (De Inc. 3.14)

This is the whole of Christianity. By putting on Christ, eating His Flesh and drinking His Blood and so truly becoming a part of His Body, we become again what we are always meant to be: spotless mirrors of divine radiance. Continue reading

The Secret of Happiness?

I recently saw a TED Talk by Harvard Professor of Psychology David Gilbert. What he says is extremely interesting. According to Gilbert, there are two kinds of happiness: ‘natural’ and ‘synthetic’.

“Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted; and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted.”

Let’s take a simple example as an illustration. Bill is an average guy who is up for promotion. He wants this promotion; he believes that the extra money and job security will make him happy. There are two possible outcomes: he will either get the promotion or he won’t; he will either get what he wanted, or he won’t. If Bill gets the promotion, he’ll get what Gilbert calls ‘natural happiness’: he’ll be happy because he got what he believed would make him happy. If Bill doesn’t get the promotion, he might still find ways to be happy with the situation. As people often do when they miss out on something, he might say and think things like, “It was for the best, this way I get to spend more time with my family,” or “Well, it was just money anyway.” This is what Gilbert calls ‘synthetic happiness’, because in a sense, Bill has had to synthesise or manufacture it. He’s had to make himself happy in spite of his circumstances.

What makes us happy?

What makes us happy?

As Gilbert points out, “In our society, we have strong belief that synthetic happiness is an inferior kind.” We tend to think that people who make themselves happy despite not getting what they wanted are really just masking their dissatisfaction or being disingenuous. But Gilbert’s big argument is that “… synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for.” In other words, happiness is something that we make, not something that we find. It’s an act of our own will, and not a circumstance which comes to us from without.

In his talk, Gilbert points to several interesting experiments which show that people can be powerfully happy even in terribly reduced circumstances. These findings are quite surprising; they’re not intuitive at all. For example, we would assume that typically, lottery winners are much happier than paraplegics. But an experiment cited by Gilbert showed that three months after winning the lottery or being confined to a wheelchair, paraplegics are just as happy as lottery winners. What happens to them has no lasting effect on the state of their happiness. What does affect their happiness is their own choice of how to deal with what has happened to them; happiness is a way of life, not a circumstance.

Continue reading

Healing a Hungry World – Fasting

From the outside, fasting can seem like a pretty boring thing. People change their diet all the time; it rarely makes headlines. It’s an action that carries no more significance in itself than using a new brand of toothpaste, or changing phone carriers. Fasting, as a purely dietary practice, is quite possibly one of the most boring activities in the world.

The horrifying reality of hunger: a Somali boy being treated for malnourishment (source)

The horrifying reality of hunger: a Somali boy being treated for malnourishment (source)

But to conclude from this that fasting is boring, is rather like concluding that every movie with blazing guns and fast cars must be good. Even Sunday School children know that the Christian practice of fasting has never been a mere change of diet; the act of giving up certain kinds of food – namely the bloody kind, prepared in abattoirs and slaughterhouses – is symbolic of a much more mystical endeavour. What I want to argue here is that fasting, far from being a mere selfish and ritualistic supersition, is actually a mystical way of healing the world. St. Basil, in his fantastic Homily on Fasting, explains that in an important sense, the world is fallen precisely because we failed to fast:

“[Fasting] is as old as humanity itself; it was prescribed in Paradise. It was the first commandment that Adam received: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat.” Through the words “ye shall not eat” the law of fasting and abstinence is laid down. If Eve had fasted from the tree, we would not now be in need of this fast.Continue reading

‘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:


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.