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 I – The Church Fathers: how should Christians read secular works?
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.
St. Basil of Caesarea (famous for his liturgy) held a similar view. In his Address to the youth on the right use of pagan literature, he says, “Into the life eternal the Holy Scriptures lead us, which teach us through divine words. But so long as our immaturity forbids our understanding their deep thought, we exercise our spiritual perceptions upon profane writings, which are not altogether different, and in which we perceive the truth as it were in shadows and in mirrors.” (Address to the youth, Ch. 2) Our ‘immaturity’ (also translated ‘youth’) finds it easier to apprehend goodness in secular things than the Scriptures; and there is nothing wrong with using them as a ‘practice ground’. For St. Basil (as for St. Clement), the pagan writers can be a helpful and godly source of spiritual instruction, so long as they are always perceived as imperfect mirrors of the truths contained fully in the Scriptures; St. Basil argues that “[we must] become first initiated in the pagan lore, then at length give special heed to the sacred and divine teachings, even as we first accustom ourselves to the sun’s reflection in the water, and then become able to turn our eyes upon the very sun itself” (Address, Ch. 2).
These fathers aren’t arguing that there exists a source of truth other than Christ. For St. Justin Martyr, the goodness which the pagan authors apprehended was none other than Christ Himself (for what other source of goodness is there?): “… whatever either lawgivers or philosophers uttered well, they elaborated by finding and contemplating some part of the Word. But since they did not know the whole of the Word, which is Christ, they often contradicted themselves.” (Second Apology, Ch. 10) For St. Clement, the truth that we apprehend in the works of the pagan Greeks is a result of the fact that God had “in each age, rained down the Lord, the Word.” (Stromata, 1.7) St. Clement strongly affirms that “The way of truth is therefore one. But,” he continues, “into it, as into a perennial river, streams flow from all sides.”
While these fathers recognised that divine truths were present even in pagan writings, they certainly recommended caution while reading them. St. Basil advised his students: “you should not unqualifiedly give over your minds to these men [i.e. pagan authors], as a ship is surrendered to the rudder […] but while receiving whatever of value they have to offer, you yet recognise what it is wise to ignore.” (Address, Ch. 1) He later provides a rather good summary of this approach using the metaphor of a bee:
“… after the manner of bees must we use these writings, for the bees do not visit all the flowers without discrimination, nor indeed do they seek to carry away entire[ly] those upon which they light, but rather, having taken so much as is adapted to their needs, they let the rest go. So we, if wise, shall take from heathen books whatever befits us and is allied to the truth, and shall pass over the rest. And just as in culling roses we avoid the thorns, from such writings as these we will gather everything useful, and guard against the noxious. So, from the very beginning, we must examine each of their teachings, to harmonise it with our ultimate purpose.” (Address, Ch. 4)
Unlike the Scriptures, not everything in pagan texts will be wholesome and helpful; much of it will have to be discarded. But for St. Basil and St. Clement, there is still great good to be found in the practice of sifting out the divine truths contained in pagan writings: they can be harmonised to Orthodox truths. St. Clement describes the relation of pagan texts to the divine scriptures like different notes in a harmony: “the highest note is different from the lowest note, yet both compose one harmony […] so, then, the barbarian and Hellenic philosophy has torn off a fragment of eternal truth […] from the theology of the ever-living Word. And He who brings again together the separate fragments, and makes them one, will without peril, be assured, contemplate the perfect Word, the truth.” (Stromata, 1.8) The art of bringing together these separate fragments is highly praised by these fathers. “To be sure,” St. Basil says, “we shall become more intimately acquainted with these precepts in the sacred writings …”, acknowledging that pagan texts are only ever incomplete reflections of what is contained perfectly in Scripture. “But,” he continues, “it is incumbent upon us, for the present, to trace, as it were, the silhouette of virtue in the pagan authors. For those who carefully gather the useful from each book are wont, like mighty rivers, to gain accessions on every hand.” (St. Basil, Address to the youth, Ch. 10) Echoing this sentiment, St. Clement says, “I call him truly learned who brings everything to bear on the truth; so that, from geometry, and music, and grammar, and philosophy itself, culling what is useful, he guards the faith against assault.” (Stromata 1.9) Seeing Christ in all things is a powerful testimony to the robustness and universality of Christ; a worthy work of praise and instruction for any believers who choose to undertake it.
To many modern Christians, these fathers’ attitude might seem dangerously ‘liberal’ or ‘worldly’. And to be fair, there are prohibitions against pagan works in some Christian texts. The Didascalia Apostolorum for example, echoes the argument of many modern Christians: “Abstain from all the heathen books. For what have you to do with such foreign discourses, or laws, or false prophets, which subvert the faith of the unstable? For what defect do you find in the law of God, that you should have recourse to those heathenish fables?” (Apost. Const. 1.2.6) But St. Clement, St. Justin Martyr, St. Basil and St. Gregory Nazianzen, who are all among the greatest and most celebrated fathers, clearly disagreed with this prohibition. They saw great value in drawing out the truths which were imperfectly reflected in ‘heathen books’. Church fathers often disagree about such things, but the whole-hearted support of so many prominent fathers for the ‘right use’ of pagan literature is certainly proof enough that any Christian who wishes to draw out the presence of Christ from secular literature is not doing something unnecessary or unwise (provided he or she does it carefully).
In the New Testament itself, St. Paul twice quotes pagan authors verbatim.“… in Him we live and move and have our being …” (Acts 17:28) is from Epimenides’ Cretica (‘as some of your own poets have said …’); the original passage was actually addressed to Zeus. The famous maxim “evil company corrupts good habits” (1 Cor 15:33) is a quote from a comedy by Menander (today, this would be a bit like quoting a sitcom or a romantic comedy, albeit a very high-brow, respectable one). When St. Paul quotes these works, it’s not to demonstrate the faults in them. In both instances, he’s doing precisely what the fathers above recommend: he takes the ‘seeds’ of divine truth out of them, to demonstrate and affirm the universal truth of the principles they contain.
In short then, the attitude to secular literature found in the fathers discussed above is this:
1 – Because God’s grace fills the whole world, secular literature reflects (imperfectly) the truths held by the Church.
2 – Those who are able are not only permitted, but encouraged, to study secular works and draw out the divine truths therein as a sort of ‘practice’ for learning and living the truths of Scripture.
So long as our eyes are firmly planted on the central truths of Christ and Scripture, there is no harm in seeing and enjoying those truths in non-Christian works; not only is there no harm, there is great good.
Here’s a reading list is so you can read the relevant patristics for yourself:
St. Basil of Caesarea, Address to the youth on the right use of Greek literature, (http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/basil_litterature01.htm)
St. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata (Miscellanies), Book 1 Chapters 2, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 9 (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/02101.htm)
St. Justin Martyr, First Apology, Ch. 46 and Second Apology, Chapters 8, 10 and 13 (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0127.htm).
St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Funerary Oration for St. Basil (Oration 43), Section 11 (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310243.htm)
Fr. Kevin Kalish, Gathering Honey from Flowers – The Fathers on Secular Learning, ROCOR Studies (http://www.rocorstudies.org/articles/2011/06/02/gathering-honey-from-flowers-the-fathers-on-secular-learning/)