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

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.

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‘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

The Spiritual Vision of KONY 2012

The hype around KONY 2012 seems to have died down considerably now, but the stir it caused certainly hasn’t. I’ve included links at the end of this post to several well-made arguments that Kony 2012 is at best ineffective and at worst, harmful. But that’s not my concern here. As unhelpful as KONY 2012 is likely to be for real Ugandans, there’s no denying the campaign’s power to move people. Credit where credit’s due, as a film designed to inspire action, Jason Russell’s video is positively brilliant. It’s a rhetorical masterpiece. Perhaps the most stunning thing about it is its length. Internet-citizens have notoriously short attention spans; to make a 30 minute, non-fiction video go viral is an incredible feat.

Between Vimeo and YouTube, KONY 2012 garnered 80 million views over just four days. Russell’s video obviously struck a terrifyingly powerful chord – and for what it’s worth, I think it has a lot to do with what I’ll call the video’s ‘spiritual vision’. This is vision is communicated almost entirely in the film’s subtext (the hidden assumptions that lie beneath the surface of a text). Every word and every image in the film makes subtle suggestions about who we are and why we matter. Factually dubious and ineffective as it is, KONY 2012 has a remarkably profound perspective on those questions; a perspective which powerfully speaks to the image of God in each of us, whether we know we bear that image or not.

It starts in the very first minute, with Russell’s opening words (0:24):

“Right now, there are more people on Facebook than there were on the planet 200 years ago. Humanity’s greatest desire is to belong and connect, and now we see each other, we hear each other; we share what we love, and it reminds us what we all have in common.”

Those words paint a picture (assisted by the camera work and music), of a sort of  ‘Facebook Nation’; a confederacy of mostly young, well-off, upwardly mobile Westerners, all endowed with the incredible, mystical, world-changing powers of the Internet. Russell depicts the communications tools we use everyday (iPads, iPhones, laptops, web browsers) as objects of fantastic, almost supernatural power. He is not talking down to us like a morally superior preacher, trying to guilt us into giving him money. He is revering our might, acknowledging our power, and attempting to invoke our favour. He wants us to use our power to help his cause. Yes, that’s a nuance – this all takes place in the subtext. But it’s an important point: it’s undeniable that for the film to make any sense at all, we Westerners, with the power of our social networks, must hold some sort of creative power. What’s interesting, is that traditional Christianity views the human race as ‘co-creators‘ with God the Creator, and co-redeemers with Christ the Redeemer – we have the powers of the God whose image we bear: powers to create and to redeem. There’s a marked note of something like ‘awe’ or ‘reverence’ for humanity’s creative power in Russel’s words. He isn’t speaking to us as selfish children (like many charity campaigns do), he’s speaking to us as gods.

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