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. Continue reading