Weekly(ish) Miscellany III

Weekly(ish) Miscellany III: November 18-December 29, 2013

An Explanation

I got married November 30. Hopefully that statement adequately accounts for the long absence. I did most of the writing below prior to the wedding, but nothing was really finished, so I abandoned myself to the busyness of the season rather than try to post anything.

Key Scriptures under contemplation

Matthew 2

“Out of Egypt I called my son.” I spent some time contemplating this line this morning. The source of this prophecy is Hosea 11:1, which, rather than being an explicitly messianic passage, references Israel’s exodus from captivity as it glorifies God for his “tutorship” of his chosen nation, which has nevertheless proved obstinate and wayward. Matthew is clearly revealing Jesus as true Israel, the righteous child of God who fulfills Hosea 11 for being unlike the wandering son Israel described in that passage. The next recorded episode is his baptism (as the Red Sea crossing, the nation’s baptism, follows the exodus).

C. S. Lewis in God in the Dock (an excerpt of which was Saturday’s Advent reading) describes the Christ story as one of “descent and resurrection,” the Resurrection being simply the turning point in the larger story, in which humanity and all creation is retrieved from death, in which the finished work of man is exalted from the slime to which he had sunk. The briefly-described Egypt saga places Christ on this path of descent, continuing from the cosmic descent of his incarnation. Yet he descends that God the Father may call him out of the land of exile and captivity—and call him “my son.” Now that he has taken on Israel, Christ, the lamb, can take Israel and all humanity to the cross and fulfill Hosea 11:1 as Israel never could.


Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama, I. Prolegomena (1973)

Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation (2011) FINISHED

John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934)

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880)

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” (1836) FINISHED

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar” (1837)

Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972)

Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain (1997)

Hermann Hesse, Demian (1919) FINISHED

An interesting little novel by the author of Siddhartha, with an introduction by Thomas Mann, which had a great impact on the interwar generation of Germany. The first half I truly enjoyed as a description of bourgeois childhood psychology. The latter half was heavy with Jungian psycho-spirituality, and the earnest seriousness with which Hesse treats this dramatization of his own philosophy can detract from the quality of the writing. Nevertheless, this novel expresses the human need for spirituality that has burst recklessly and repeatedly from a culture of aggressively totalizing modern materialism, as in 1960s America.

Andrew Louth, lecture series, “Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Personal Introduction” (2011) FINISHED

Yann Martel, Life of Pi (2001)

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (1973)

Richard Viladesau, Theology and the Arts: Encountering God through Music, Art and Rhetoric (2000)

Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (2001)

Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall (1928)

Simone Weil, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” (1942) FINISHED


1. The Cormorant: A Sub-Miscellany

One of the recurring symbols that emerged from the obscurity of my childhood was that of the cormorant. I have truly no idea how this symbol took root or gained meaning; I’ve only seen cormorants a small handful of times, and as far as I know I was unfamiliar with any literary or artistic reference that might have drawn me to them. They are not beautiful creatures, and they do not have a particularly rich history as a symbol (at least, insofar as I’ve found out). But somewhere along the line I started using the cormorant as an emblem of self-reference, or as a kind of totem. Today I often use the cormorant or a derivative as an online moniker by default.

The cormorant is a large, pelican-like bird, usually black or darkly-plumaged, that mostly inhabits coasts around the world; some species of the cormorant (phalacrocorax) family are called “shags.” It is rather grotesquely shaped, with a long neck, large head, and awkward, gooselike body. Some species are flightless. Its major distinctive is its feeding habits, which consist of diving into the water for fish, propelling itself through the water with its feet—it is thought they even swallow pebbles to make themselves dive more efficiently. Normal dives are less than thirty feet deep, but some have been recorded diving over two hundred feet down to the ocean floor. They have no oil in their feathers, like ducks do, and when they surface, they often turn into the wind and extend their wings to dry them. In Holland, England, and France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, cormorants were trained in the style of royal falconry to “hunt” for fish. In East Asia and other parts of the world, moreover, cormorants have been fully domesticated, and are a part of many fishermen’s livelihoods. A metal ring or cord is placed on their necks so they are unable to swallow the fish they catch. These birds tend to be gregarious and very inquisitive, and their intelligence is demonstrated by the fact that they can count up to at least seven, the number of fish they are required to catch before they are allowed one themselves for food.

Cormorant probably derives from the Latin name, corvus marinus, “sea raven,” which is also the meaning of its Welsh, Irish, and Scandinavian names (mulfran/morfran, fiach mara, and scarv respectively). Culturally and mythologically, the cormorant has never been as important as say, the heron or the pelican, or its land-based analogue the raven. For some it has had positive connotations, as when a nymph came to Ulysses in the form of a cormorant. Its wing-drying pose is noticeably cruciform and hence has lent itself to imagery of sacrifice. In Scandinavia, cormorants were often taken to be good luck, and were sometimes thought to be the souls of sailors drowned at sea, returning to their homeland in disguise. They appear in one story as guides of good fishermen to paradisal island Udrost and bane of unbelievers. Among the Celts, the “Sea Raven” was a magical bird of air and water. On the Pacific coast, Tlingit and Haida Native Americans described the “Cormorant People,” underwater spirits whose eyes were literally opened by a hunter-hero in search of his abducted wife; to them, the cormorant is an important totem, a supernatural fisher, a status similar to that attributed the bird by the Calusa of Florida and the Koniaq of Alaska. Chinese folklore states that the cormorant vomits its babies from its mouth rather than hatching them; hence various ancient manuals suggest that women should hold a specimen of the bird while giving birth, to ensure easy delivery. To the Maori, the straight, unwavering flight of the shag (cormorant) is proverbial; Mayan mythology, on the other hand, suggested a mutable, transformative quality, from their crests which appear during mating season to the appearance of their dark necks riding like serpents through the water.

In the West, in the dawning of an age of commercial fishing, the cormorant became infamous for its alleged voracious appetite. It took on the aspect of a glutton (as many times in Shakespeare and Jane Eyre) and symbol of the Devil (as in Milton’s Paradise Lost and, some have argued, Bram Stoker’s Dracula). Some folktales in Great Britain speak of the bird as an evil omen, or a sign of misfortune at sea. This darker perspective continues to thrive in many fishing communities, which see cormorants as dangerously efficient competition, with a few nations even sanctioning massive (and controversial) culls of the bird. According to The Guardian, anglers today along the River Lea call the cormorant “the Black Death.” In Lake Baikal in Russia, the largest freshwater lake in the world, their once-large colonies are completely gone, probably due to human activity, leaving three islands named after them to mark their erstwhile presence.

So why should I (retrospectively) adopt the cormorant as a symbolic presence, even as an occasional pseudonym? I still don’t know. I don’t particularly enjoy fishing. The name itself is aesthetically attractive, probably the sum of the original appeal, as well as its translation. The obscure northern traditions of the mystical “sea raven” might have something to do with this, also. Gordon McMullan of King’s College London notes that in England the cormorant has functioned as symbol of Christ and Satan both.[1] This strange duality embodied in the black, ugly waterfowl who raises his wings into the sign of the cross is compelling.

In the absence of definite antecedent, I would propose the cormorant as a sign of spiritual searching. He is a coal-black creature possessing no beauty of his own, straddling sea and air and land, scraping heaven and the depths of the sea. Yet spiritual grace is most profoundly revealed when the cormorant ceases to dive and fly, but rests on the rocks of the shore. He turns into the wind and spreads his dripping wings to the gaze of the sun. The fisherman is himself snared. The aspect of the fallen angel becomes the image of the crucified God.

2. Theology

In the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar, theo-drama deals with the dynamic, relational aspects of theology; it poses theological questions in terms of drama, of God’s acting and man’s response, and thus involves itself particularly in questions of sovereignty, history, Christology, anthropology, and free will.

Hans Urs von Balthasar identifies nine “trends” in modern theology and suggests that theo-drama provides an overall structure that brings together the benefits of each:

  1. Event. The “event” principle refers to God’s vertical breaking-in on time—a “flash of lightning” which transforms and redeems not only history, but the eschatological present. Balthasar characterizes this trend as the one which allowed theology to escape “orthodox and liberal rationalism,” which was confined to horizontal historical fact. On the other hand, this trend does not do justice to true historical unfolding, for prophecy and fulfillment, for appointed times and seasons.
  2. History. This trend deals with situation; it is about reinterpretation to make truth relevant to a given point in time and space. This perspective places great weight on God’s plan manifesting in choice and historical flux. It also, however, is inadequate to grappling with the vertical truth of revelation uniquely realized in the Christian tradition, with the transformation of man that takes place at the intersection of time and eternity.
  3. Orthopraxy. This trend as such argues that the Christian tradition of doctrines and creeds has drifted from the essential reality of fulfillment through a way of life; it dismisses dogma, ritual, and church government in favor of praxis, right action. Balthasar points out that although orthopraxy pulls Christianity onto the active stage of the world, it blurs the operation of God on man through Christ with man’s responsive praxis, leaving hollow philanthropy. Christianity, rather, requires a “self-surrendering” faith that precedes and inspires initiative.
  4. Dialogue. This is a highly fruitful new theological avenue that especially studies the “dialogue” between God and man—the interaction of points of view, communication, that when intact leads to man’s realization of God. Balthasar suggests that dialogue does not express all facets of Christian reality, and in fact should be considered a necessary part of the larger active structure of drama.
  5. Political Theology. This trend aims at “deprivatizing” Christian theology by using it to critique and construct communities; it thus has a forward and this-worldly focus, as it is set on developing institutions for the Kingdom of God. The problem is that this can politically pigeonhole Christianity and lose sight of its essentially transcendent character—exemplified in Christ, the non-political messiah.
  6. Futurism. This trend has been highly attractive to modern theologians, for it deals with movement toward the eschaton. Balthasar suggests that this can be useful when looked at in the context of the apocalyptic, but is difficult to extricate from secular utopianism.
  7. Function. Its name taken from sociology, it refers to the structuralist perspective on the world as a system of social interactions; one’s “function” in that system, one’s relation to the whole, determines one’s meaning. This is inherently anti-dramatic, for it subordinates the actions of the subject. It can be helpful when looking at the church and to demystify the pseudo-sacral, but it requires a “horizon of values” that structuralism does not provide. Balthasar argues that the idea of “function” can contribute to theo-drama if it is placed in the tension between the gift-giving of God and the functional living-out of those gifts within the structure of the earthly Church, for which those gifts are intended.
  8. Role. Also a sociological term, this refers to “role” or identity within the structure of social functions. Unlike function, this is about individual identity rather than mere position in a structure of interchangeable parts. Balthasar notes that he will address this directly later in his book and argue that Christian theo-drama alone offers a satisfactory answer to the questions surrounding this concept.
  9. Freedom and Evil. This trend continues ancient questions concerning the moral freedom of the creature; however, modern theology often projects the evil and fragmentation of creation back on the nature of eternity, rather than holding absolutely to the concept that evil is a mere privation of God’s abundant goodness. Even Christians today seriously question the idea that the earth is filled with God’s glory and Christ has overthrown the reign of sin. Although it marks a crisis of belief that can result in disillusionment or heresy, Balthasar suggests this trend points to appropriate questions about the relationship between divine and human freedom, which before were on the periphery.

3. Review of Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation, and notes on Christian Platonism

Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation (2011) describes itself as presenting “an apologia for the Platonist-Christian synthesis of the Great Tradition” (185), otherwise known as a sacramental or participatory view of reality, which Boersma attributes to the first millennium of Christianity. This view of reality, founded in early Christian theologians’ engagement with pagan philosophy, held sway in the West until philosophical nominalism began to wear it away in the Middle Ages. Modernism all but extinguished it, resulting in a secular society and a scholastic establishment in both Catholic and Protestant theologies. Nevertheless, Boersma recommends that evangelicals take a cue from the ressourcement work of nouvelle théologie within Catholicism and save ourselves from modernism and postmodernism by restoring a sacramental ontology.

The book is divided into two sections, appropriately titled Exitus and Reditus. The first is comprised of a historical analysis of the decline of the “sacramental tapestry.” The second half engages discretely with the topics of Eucharist, tradition, Bible, truth, and theology to examine means of restoration. Boersma’s opening chapter pushes for the importance of a sacramental perspective and ontological questions in general. “The call for a purely ‘biblical’ theology seems to me terribly naïve,” he writes (20). Everyone has an ontology, and those who argue for its dispensability in matters of faith generally hold to an unconscious modernist ontology that in fact threatens the very social and personal relevance of Christ. Sacramental thought is brilliantly exampled in G. K. Chesterton’s description of Fairyland in Orthodoxy. It is a world with premodern “enchantment” restored; in the face of secularism’s demystified universe, sacramentally-minded Christians boldly declare the imminence of the divine mystery in all creation. Creation in this perspective is not completely removed from God and in ceaseless hostility toward Him; instead, creation yearns for her Creator, who at all times fills her with His incarnate glory. Boersma’s message is urgent and forceful, so far has the pendulum of Christian thought swung in the wrong direction. As inclusive and inviting as he attempts to be, his book will inevitably find opposition from some strands of Protestant theology which tend to emphasize God’s transcendence; but even those who incline to disagree would do well to pick up this book and use it to provoke contemplation on what they think God’s sustaining relationship to creation actually is.

Nevertheless, I am not sure that I would agree with Boersma that Heavenly Participation functions as an effective apologia. Although scriptural references are scattered throughout the book (and assembled into a special index in the back), he does not attempt to present an exegetical defense of sacramental theology. Given that he is writing mainly to evangelicals, I find this surprising. He devotes probably more space than is necessary to asserting the ecumenical (Catholic-evangelical) opportunities that arise from mutual acceptance of sacramental theology, while he may shortchange the many hang-ups most evangelicals are likely to have when considering such a foreign theological perspective. He does a far better job tying anti-sacramental modernism to present spiritual crises and critiquing some basic objections to the Platonist-Christian synthesis. Particularly in the second half of his book, his principal project is to summarize and compare theologians whose writings on the subject Boersma finds persuasive, such as Henri de Lubac, Jean Daniélou, Yves Congar, Henri Bouillard, and Marie-Dominique Chenu, as well as Church Fathers Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa and others. This work constitutes a very helpful overview and rich list of resources for further information; arguably, that is the principal benefit of the book.

Heavenly Participation was recommended to me by a professor, a Presbyterian no less, and in general I concur with her positive assessment. I am a lay student of history and not a trained theologian or philosopher, but I came to the book with some prior reading in the subject, and perhaps in consequence, I found his writing overly repetitive in places. It is worth noting that this book is an adaptation of themes developed in an academic monograph by Boersma called Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology. The subject certainly demands a more comprehensive text, but for evangelicals and Catholics with a decent knowledge of theology and looking for a good introduction on sacramental theology, this is a fine place to start.

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[This brief discourse was sparked by a Facebook conversation about the merits of Boersma’s affirmation of the Platonist-Christian synthesis. There is a common assumption among evangelicals that the early Church fell under bad pagan influences which warped her theology, and this is in fact one of the questions Boersma specifically addresses. In these paragraphs, I have not gone into Boersma’s discussion of specific points that demonstrate the discernment with which Christians appropriated Platonic concepts, but for now I’m only trying to encourage open-minded study of the “synthesis” rather than necessarily an embrace of that theology.]

The Hellenization thesis, which teaches that Christianity lost its original purity when it migrated from its Jewish roots over the first couple centuries of its existence and “Hellenized” its theology and culture, was first espoused by heretics such as Michael Servetus in an attempt to refute the Trinity. It was later popularized by liberal theologians such as Harnack, and much hay is made of it today by Trinity-denying, incarnation-denying heresies such as Islam and Mormonism, not to mention groups of questionable orthodoxy such as the Hebrew Roots Movement, open theism, and any of a number of “churches” which claim historical Christianity is basically apostate. This is in part because the thesis implicitly calls into question such ideas, formulated in Hellenic philosophical language and through Hellenic exegetical methods, as the unchangeability of God, the eternal generation of the Son, the composition of the Trinity, and the hypostatic union in Christ. Nevertheless, Harnack’s Hellenization thesis has come under heavy criticism from contemporary scholars, in part because Israel itself was by the first century very Hellenic in culture, in part because early Christianity did draw lines between what it could and could not accept from pagan philosophy (unlike Gnosticism, as Boersma points out), and in part because there is simply no evidence of discontinuity between the (allegedly Hebraic) Apostolic ministry and the (allegedly Hellenic) early Church fathers who engaged with Platonism. Paul, while showing few signs of fluency with Greek philosophy, neither showed it any hostility in his epistles and in fact employed allegory and other “Hellenic” methods in his theology. And as Henri de Lubac has demonstrated, the conception that Origen and his successors mindlessly copied Philo’s technique is a myth—and if it were not, we would have to seriously re-examine our most basic assumptions about true Christianity. Yes, there may have been some imbalance among some authors such as Origen, but that hardly means we should throw out centuries of Christian theology. Not even the Reformers did that.

What hope is there for us of understanding the Gospel if everyone more or less got it wrong for the first three-fourths of the Church’s history? Why should we accept the Nicene Creed or the canon of Scripture if they were fundamentally products of a church whose hermeneutic was faulty and whose practice was already veering into paganism? Christianity simply cannot be separated from the Hellenic culture in which its experiences first burgeoned into creeds and dogmas, or it becomes no longer Christianity. I don’t see how a literal-historical approach to the Bible, for instance, combined with an Enlightenment individualist rationalism, is any more “Biblical” than so-called spiritual modes (sacramental, allegorical, anagogical, etc.) gone before. That is not to say there is no value in the literal-historical, for indeed there can be great value, but I am not willing to stop at such arbitrary and historically transient borders of acceptability out of pure fear that my theology will end up looking a little different (which is all my reluctance would be, at this point).

Western Protestants tend to be more radically non-sacramental than not only the early and medieval church, but the reformers, and just about everybody short of the deists. To me, as a Christian historian, this suggests not progress but imbalance. We are too afraid of superstition and works-righteousness, both valid concerns but also at times inhibiting bogies. The fact is, the Christians who give me any confidence in my Christianity, such as G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, very much shared in a traditional, sacramental worldview. Lewis’s writings are so potent in part because they revive some of the fragrance of the Church Fathers’ theology and the Christian-Platonist synthesis. Among formal theologians, setting aside the Church Fathers and early medieval theologians as well as Orthodox and some Catholic and Anglican theologians to this day, even the Calvinist great Jonathan Edwards was visibly influenced in his ethics and theology by philosophical Neoplatonism (see God’s End and The Nature of True Virtue, for instance). Ultimately, I think it is hardly a given that Plato has had a destructive influence on Christian theology. In fact, the evidence may lean the other direction. The rationalist-nominalist vision of a demystified cosmos without “real presence” that now dominates the West brings us ever to the brink of deism (and sometimes over it).

Perhaps this is important to me in part because I have been exposed to so much richness of thought since I got over my Protestant snobbery and simply started reading the Church Fathers and sacramentally-minded theologians for what they were. Also because for a while I leaned toward the idea of recovering an original “Jewish” perspective on Christianity and now I think it misguided and potentially rather dangerous. We cannot separate Christ as we know him in the Bible from the theology of our spiritual ancestors, by which we identify him as God-man and member of the Trinity, without undermining the whole foundation of the Church. But to return to that theology, even from the distance that time and shifting culture have established, may yield much that we have forgotten, and much that may enable us to navigate out of a fractured and secularized Christianity and into the fullness of following Christ.

4. In Defense of the Snobs

I have frequently witnessed a particular phenomenon online which I think all my readers will recognize. It follows this pattern: some professional or amateur critic posts an indictment of some work of film or literature, or cultural-artistic fad, or piece of religious kitsch. In the comments below, some are enthusiastically on board, a rare one respectfully and articulately disagrees, but a substantial proportion of the responses reduce to essentially this statement: “You’re being a snob!” Some level of offense is taken because something intended to be “fun” or “mere entertainment” was subjected to serious scrutiny, or because something that was meaningful or passively enjoyable to the commenter (“I loved it,” or “I turned out fine” when referring to influences) was met with apparent nitpicking. This does not merely happen in matters with possible room for dispute; I have often seen this directed to observations of blatantly shoddy craftsmanship (as in Twilight, to take the latest classic example, or parts of the Disney princess franchise). It is as if, to use C. S. Lewis’s terminology, the purveyors of solely “bad art” are insulted at the idea that any distinction can be made, not merely between whatever the critic approves or spurns, but between “bad” and “good” at all.

Let me take a very concrete example. Over a year ago I read an article by a Christian critiquing Thomas Kinkade’s art and his lucrative business of selling paintings purportedly depicting a glorious “pre-fall” vision of the world—a vision, whatever one’s opinion of the works, which is mostly unpopulated, formulaic, and little resembles reality. Kinkade, due to his prominence on the popular art scene, is of course an easy and obvious target. At the time of reading it, I did not agree with everything in the article, which declared the products of Kinkade’s prodigious output superficial, fake, and escapist, if not essentially nihilist (this last being more a point of stylistic criticism than an evaluation of the author’s worldview external to his works). Well over half the comments on that article were variations on, “Who are you to judge an artist whose works have sold millions (and/or touched so many)?” In response to specific and quite valid criticisms of superficiality, such apologists usually resorted to, “Well, the paintings are not supposed to mean anything—just to be beautiful.”

Some weeks later, I read another article—by a secular film critic—scathingly critiquing the recent filmography of Adam Sandler. Sandler is an actor and producer who makes his living on cheap, often crass feature comedies which generally receive mixed (at best) critical response. This critic, who admitted to having enjoyed some of Sandler’s films, denounced recent efforts as mindless, pointlessly crude, deliberately offensive, and profit-oriented. Product placement is so rife that these films could turn a profit even if they almost bombed, they contain virtually no effort toward well-crafted jokes, and they often rely on hurtful stereotyping and offensive denigration of people and values. The subject of criticism may have been completely different from Kinkade, but the responses I discovered remarkably parallel in their arguments. Those who defended Sandler said, pretty much, “Who are you to criticize someone who can make his audience laugh? The films are not supposed to mean anything.”

The occasional response “Who are you to criticize? Can you do such and such?” ought to be dismissed immediately. Any thinking person will soon see how outrageously fallacious this kind of rhetoric is. The real statement worth analysis is, “They’re not supposed to mean anything,” or, “They’re not trying to say anything,” and likewise the implication that the critic is necessarily the snob. This, I think the Kinkade critic is right in pointing out, is not broad-minded, but nihilist, and can be used to justify the pretensions of the “Painter of Light” as much as it can justify a crass Sandler comedy. If, as Christians often say in their examination of secular media and worldview, ideas have consequences, and what we take in does affect us, we must be willing to apply consistent standards of judgment to media intake within our own culture.

There is of course the matter of pretension with people such as Kinkade specifically, who seem to imagine both that all art is on an even plain, and that art with the “Christian” label is indubitably better and healthier than all other genres. If Kinkade professed only to produce ornamentation, like lampshades, we might call it a matter of taste; but Kinkade considered himself to be recapturing the Godly view of art—one that, seemingly, is also built on denunciation of everyone else’s art as nihilist, and is tailored formulaically to the demands of the buying public. His art represents a world that could not even be called an ideal; it is certainly not our own, but a fake-world, a sugary concoction seeking to awake passive sentiment and calling that genuine art-experience. In this respect, it is the worst and most pretentious form of kitsch. A lampshade has more reason to exist and a better view of its proper function.

To return to the phenomenon of blog posts and reviews and comments, there is indeed a disturbing nihilism in the suggestion that we are in no place to judge or critique artifacts, especially when they have touched so many people, or sold 100,000 copies, or made millions, or some other mark of worldly success. This phenomenon is seemingly just as exaggerated among Christian consumers, who use this to justify the worst sorts of spiritual nonsense, from obsequious church growth tactics to dangerous new doctrines and practices to the proliferation of sentimental trivia. The immediate argument of resort is a denial of any position to criticize what constitutes for some a comfortable form of expression and engagement, either through the route of “it’s not meaningful” or “you are just blind to the [self-evident] meaning.” Both of these avenues can be destructive; neither is truly Christian. While I’m not advocating for the total elimination of all sentimentality or “mere” entertainment, I believe we should not be shy about approaching what we receive from the culture critically, and allowing for the application of potentially discomfiting standards.

Any further preaching would probably be purposeless, but I have written the above in hopes of moving toward a dialogue. Frankly, the responses I have described above seem to me bafflingly naïve, the plea of the consumer who would continue to mindlessly consume; they are pervasive in our postmodern society, and should be no less above criticism than the works they defend. I think a critical posture is healthy and necessary and nothing like true snobbishness. But I do not wish to merely feed indignation and detachment. Our criticisms are useless if we cannot produce (or at least point to) work that is genuine and worthy of admiration. The answer is the real Christian culture of Ephrem the Syrian, Dante Alighieri, Andrei Rublev, J. S. Bach, Rembrandt, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Komitas Vardapet, Flannery O’Connor, T. S. Eliot, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Andrei Tarkovsky, and many others. The answer is, again, to dwell on the good, the true, the beautiful.


“If we were not something more than unique human beings, if each one of us could really be done away with once and for all by a single bullet, storytelling would lose all purpose. But every man is more than just himself; he also represents the unique, the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world’s phenomena intersect, only once in this way and never again. That is why every man’s story is important, eternal, sacred; that is why every man, as long as he lives and fulfills the will of nature, is wondrous, and worthy of every consideration. In each individual the spirit has become flesh, in each man the creation suffers, within each one a redeemer is nailed to the cross…. Each man’s life represents a road toward himself, an attempt at such a road, the intimation of a path. No man has ever been entirely and completely himself. Yet each one strives to become that….”

(Hermann Hesse, Demian)

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“Glory to Him Who sowed His Light in the darkness, and was reproached in His hidden state, and covered His secret things. He also stripped and took off from us the clothing of our filthiness. Glory be to Him on high, Who mixed His salt in our minds, His leaven in our souls. His Body became Bread, to quicken our deadness….

Let us adore Him Who enlightened with His doctrine our mind, and in our hearing sought a pathway for His words. Praise we Him Who grafted into our tree His fruit. Thanks to Him Who sent His Heir, that by Him He might draw us to Himself, yea make us heirs with Him! Thanks to that Good One, the cause of all goods! …

Glory to the hidden Husbandman of our intellects! His seed fell on to our ground, and made our mind rich. His increase came an hundredfold into the treasury of our souls! Let us adore Him Who sat down and took rest; and walked in the way, so that the Way was in the way, and the Door also for them that go in, by which they go in to the kingdom.

Blessed the Shepherd Who became a Lamb for our reconcilement! Blessed the Branch Who became the Cup of our Redemption! Blessed also be the Cluster, Fount of medicine of life! Blessed also be the Tiller, Who became Wheat, that He might be sown; and a Sheaf, that He might be cut! [Blessed be] the Architect Who became a Tower for our place of safety! Blessed He Who so tempered the feelings of our mind, that we with our harp should sing that which the winged creatures’ mouth knows not with its strains to sing! Glory to Him, Who beheld how we had pleased to be like to brutes in our rage and our greediness; and came down and was one of us, that we might become heavenly!”

(St. Ephrem the Syrian)

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“There is, my brethren, a true, real life, and there is a false, imaginary life. To live in order to eat, drink, dress, walk; to enrich ourselves in general, to live for earthly pleasures or cares, as well as to spend time in intriguing and underhanded dealings; to think ourselves competent judges of everything and everybody is—the imaginary life; whilst to live in order to please God and serve our neighbors, to pray for the salvation of their souls and to help them in the work of their salvation in every way, is to lead the true life. The first life is continual spiritual death, the second—the uninterrupted life of the spirit.” (St. John of Kronstadt)

* * *

“Love a man even for his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love…. At some thoughts one stands perplexed, especially at the sight of men’s sin, and wonders whether one should use force or humble love. Always decide to use humble love. If you resolve on that once for all, you may subdue the whole world….

“My brother asked the birds to forgive him; that sounds senseless, but it is right; for all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth. It may be senseless to beg forgiveness of the birds, but birds would be happier at your side—a little happier, anyway—and children and all animals, if you yourself were nobler than you are now. It’s all like an ocean, I tell you. Then you would pray to the birds too, consumed by an all-embracing love, in a sort of transport, and pray that they too will forgive you your sin. Treasure this ecstasy, however senseless it may seem to men.”
(Fr Zossima in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov)

* * *

“The ego’s search for God is deeply frustrated by His silence. The boundaries of silence, darkness and hiddenness with which God most often surrounds Himself are met with frustration, argument, anger or even rejection. The ego frequently substitutes the products of the mind for the truth of God. God as idea is the God who is most suited to the needs of the ego. Such a God will, end the end, be an icon of the ego itself. We inevitably become like that which we worship.”

(Fr. Stephen Freeman, http://glory2godforallthings.com/2013/11/22/the-borders-of-our-lives/ )

* * *

“The use of silence in worship bespeaks the mystical and contemplative dimension of religion: the depth of God experienced as transcending all categorical mediation, beyond our ability to speak and feel. Although the potential conflict between word and music is born of the tension between an intellectual/conceptual and an intuitive/sensible approach to religion, yet another factor is introduced by the theological and spiritual insight into the absolute transcendence/immanence of God which cannot be adequately expressed in any objectification, either in word or in contentless sound. Even the New Testament, with all its emphasis on the word of revelation, insists that external preaching and hearing are of no avail without the direct interior ‘witness’ of God, moving the mind and heart (Jn 6:4). It is here that silence becomes an important part of religious expression. Religious silence is not simply the absence of sound but is an active attitude of attending to the encounter with the absolute Mystery in Itself, unmediated by creatures. It is a fitting symbol of the reverential awe with which we seek the utterly Holy: God as the One beyond all our concepts, desires, and feelings. Silence is also a language—that of mysticism and interiority. Both word and music occupy the mind and senses; the purpose of silence is to free them from activity and create the space for contemplation.

Even the sublimest music when it attempts to convey the deepest mysteries tends to fade to softness and silence. Silence also permits or even demands a difference kind of personal stance. Singing, speaking, and even listening all imply, to different degrees, a task to be performed: they occupy the mind and sometimes can even distract it from a confrontation with the depths of being by giving it something concrete to do. Silence invites us to contemplation—which is no doubt why reverent silence is difficult to attain, and why so many are uncomfortable with it.”

(Richard Viladesau, Theology and the Arts)

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