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)

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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

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.

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

Ancient Christianity and ‘Heaven’

Earlier this year, Richard Dawkins and Cardinal George Pell appeared on Tony Jones’ panel show QandA for something vaguely resembling a debate. Unfortunately, the whole episode seems to have been designed as a nauseatingly sensational ‘showdown’ between the apparently conflicting ‘viewpoints’ of ‘science’ and ‘faith’ (see Stephens’ article below). As a result, most of the discussion was painfully awkward and unproductive, but at one point, Dawkins said something incredibly interesting. Pell had just referred to the Christian belief in a physical resurrection, to which Dawkins replied:

“I’m intrigued by the Cardinal’s saying that the Christians believe you’re going to be resurrected in the body. I mean, that’s an astonishing idea. […] you must mean ‘body’ in some rather special sense.”

What’s interesting about this is how surprised Dawkins is that Pell believes in a physical resurrection. Presumably, he’s more used to thinking that Christians believe in an entirely ‘spiritual heaven’; what the host described elsewhere in the episode as ‘a collection of individual souls … existing in some galactic space’. Many people nowadays (including, sadly, some Christians) seem to believe that Christianity preaches that the physical world, including and especially our human bodies, are only temporary ‘cages’ for immaterial spirits. The belief seems to be that  the ‘real you’ is the non-physical spirit floating around in your head, while your body, and the whole physical world are merely ‘optional extras’, tacked onto the Creation by God, who is ultimately only concerned with our ‘immortal souls’. As a consequence, ‘Heaven’ is conceived of as a ‘spiritual place’; a sort of immaterial realm where the bodiless spirits of the righteous dead float around like angels.

Medieval plaque depicting saints joyously rising from their tombs.

But this has never been the Christian belief. As early as the second century, we have St. Clement of Rome responding to this very controversy:

“Let none of you say that this flesh is not judged and does not rise again. Just think: In what state were you saved, and in what state did you recover your [spiritual] sight, if not in the flesh? In the same manner, as you were called in the flesh, so you shall come in the flesh. If Christ, the Lord who saved us, though he was originally spirit, became flesh and in this state called us, so also shall we receive our reward in the flesh.” ~ St. Clement of Rome (II Clement 9:1-6)

This is one of the rare areas where there is a stunning level of patristic consensus (unlike, for example, the nature of Hell or Scripture). Here’s a quick sample of some fairly unequivocal comments from Church Fathers:

“God will raise up your flesh immortal with your soul …” ~ St. Theophilus of Antioch

“Therefore, the flesh shall rise again: certainly of every man, certainly the same flesh, and certainly in its entirety.” ~ Tertullian

“This body shall be raised, not remaining weak as it is now, but this same body shall be raised.” ~ St. Cyril of Jerusalem

“At the resurrection, all the members of the body are raised; not a hair perishes.” ~ St. Macarius of Egypt

“Raise up their bodies also, on the day which You have appointed according to Your true promises which are without lie.” ~ The Coptic Litany for the Dead

St. Gregory even insists that the very atoms which form our physical bodies will be called back by Christ and re-assembled into their bodily form, no matter how far they have been spread out from one another (On the Making of Man, Ch. 27).

This insistence is born from the fact that the Christian understanding of a human being was never that we are merely ‘spirits’ trapped in ‘fleshy prisons’. As St. Justin Martyr said : “Is the soul by itself a man? No, it is but the soul of a man. Can the body be called a man? No, it can but be called the body of a man.” (On the Resurrection, Ch. 8)

Of course, while it is the same body which rises, it does not rise in the same state. St. Cyril of Jerusalem puts it best:

“It is this selfsame body that is raised, although not in its present state of weakness; for it will ‘put on incorruption’ [1 Cor 15:53] and so be transformed … it will no longer need the goods which we now eat to keep it alive, nor stairs for its ascent; for it will be made spiritual and will become something marvellous, such as we cannot properly describe.”

While insisting that the same body rises, St. Cyril affirms that it will have a new ‘spiritual’ character, as described by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:44. It would be a mistake to assume though, that this means necessarily that the world will cast off its physicality. The resurrection body will still be a body; it will certainly not be a pure spirit, as Christ Himself went to great pains to prove in Luke 24:39 (“Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.”).

The question then seems to be, what sort of world does this body rise into? Continue reading

The 118th Patriarch of Alexandria …

We will probably know the name of the 118th Patriarch of Alexandria within a couple of hours. Copts around the world are huddled around televisions and laptops or congregated around projectors, as though we were all attending one gigantic liturgy (and there’s a very real sense in which we all are).

Whatever the outcome, it’s worth noting that a beautiful spirit has descended quietly upon the Coptic Church over the past few months, and with particular potency over the past few days. Copts have a range of perspectives on the upcoming selection. Many of us are entirely unfussed (which is not unwise, given the amazing quality of all three candidates). Others have strong feelings about the sort of person required to lead the Coptic Church into the 21st Century. And the three candidates themselves present a definite range of potential avenues for the Church to go down over the next few years. There can be no doubt that the rapidly approaching announcement will be of great consequence for the Church. The late Pope Shenouda III is a powerful example of how much good can be achieved by the right person. It is no coincidence that although Copts are among the smallest Orthodox youth communities in Western countries, we are easily one of the most active. The right person in the right position can do wonders for the Church. Continue reading