Monday, September 18, 2017

Doubling Down on the Game of Thrones


A couple of weeks ago, Steven Christoforou did a "Pop Culture Coffee Hour" podcast that was originally entitled "Can Christians Watch the Game of Thrones?" He got a lot of negative feedback, because his answer to this question was essentially "Yes." He later posted an apology, not for the content of the show that contained the answer to the question, but for the title of the show, which he thinks is the main problem people had with that episode, because it was perhaps too "in your face." So he changed the name of the show to "Good and Evil in the Game of Thrones." The problem was not with the title. The question "Can Christians Watch the Game of Thrones?" is a perfectly good question. The problem was his answer, which he says he still stands by.

The answer to the question should have been "No!"


That could have made for a very brief podcast, but it would have been good if he had spent some time talking about the reasons why Christians should not watch such a show.

The Game of Thrones does not merely have nudity, it has pornographic sex scenes on a frequent basis, not to mention graphic gratuitous violence. I have never watched the show, and don't intend to, but when HBO is having to sue porn sites that are taking clips from the show, and using them as porn, I'm figuring it's porn. So we are not talking about Renaissance art here.

And Steven's podcast did not dispute the frequency or graphic nature of the sexual content of the Game of Thrones. For example, at about the 16:52 mark, his co-host Emma said:
"...to just focus on the fact that it has, um you know, like rampant sex scenes, or like extreme violence or something, doesn't do the show merit. ... you're not giving the show its worth, like you're just judging kind of, at, like, surface value or what you've heard about it ...but I don't think it's necessary, you know, like I don't think it adds anything to the show."
To which Steven replied:
"Well, yeah, I guess that is the question, right? ... because, like, you have to know your limits on some level, and kind of like you said, like if this is something that is going to be more of a stumbling block for you than anything else, yeah, totally withdraw or fast-forward when you need to fast-forward, or whatever. Um...but my sense is after watching for so long, and after kind of following this series that it's never really gratuitous... um..."
To which Emma replied: "I agree."

Then starting at the 19:39 mark, Steven said:
"But my sense is that it has always been necessary... it's always been part of the unfolding characters, and sort of their longer narrative arc, as we go from season to season, um... but that said, I mean, you know, buyer beware. If you're gonna watch this, be prepared for stuff that is difficult. Be prepared for stuff that's uncomfortable. Um... and if anything, you know like, because it's artistic, it's not gratuitous, it's part of this, sort of, like this artistic web that's being painted... like yeah, it helps to say something about the human condition. It helps to say something about sacrifice... to say something about sin... to say something about all of these things. So, um... it's there for a reason. And if you can take it, if you have the stomach for it, I do think it's worth it."
Then at the 20:30 mark, Steven said:
"You know... It's a great series, but if it's something that, you know, that causes you trouble or whatever, you know, be careful."
Then Emma interjected: "Yeah, absolutely, because it will pop up out of nowhere too."

To which Steven replied: "That's true. That's true."

So obviously, even if we were to accept the idea that you could navigate your way through a TV series with frequent porn scenes by simply fast-forwarding past those scenes, this shows that you obviously can't always see these scenes coming.

But aside from that, someone had to make these shows. Someone's daughter or sister, or son, or brother, had to film these scenes. And someday their children will be able to watch these scenes of their parents engaging in sex acts on the internet for themselves. How is this possibly OK?

Digging the Hole Deeper

To make matters worse, Fr. Andrew Damick and his usual Areopagus co-host Michael Landsman did a show together Steven and his usual co-host Christian Gonzalez (who was not on the original podcast in question) to deal with this controversy, along with an unrelated controversy involving a video that Fr. Andrew and Michael Landsman did together. Some people objected to that video, because Michael Landsman is a Protestant minister and they think that putting a Protestant minister on as a regular co-commentator was compromising the Faith in some way. Now, in the unlikely event that Fr. Andrew should ever ask my opinion about the format of his show, I would share my thoughts with him, but there is nothing inherently objectionable about talking with a Protestant minister about religious issues. It certainly could go in an objectionable direction, but on the other hand, if Michael Landsman eventually converts to Orthodoxy, Fr. Andrew will look like a genius -- and so that issue is all a matter of wisdom at this point, and reasonable people can disagree about it.

You can listen to this podcast here:
In the World, But Not of the World: Purity vs. Engagement (Pop Culture Coffee Hour Crossover)
Unfortunately, mixing these two issues together made for a meandering conversation back and forth between these two separate questions.

Now I should preface my comments by saying a few things. The only person in this podcast who said they watch the Game of Thrones is Steven Christoforou. Fr. Andrew and Christian Gonzalez both specifically said that they do not watch it. I don't think Michael Landsman said whether he watched it or not. Also, Fr. Andrew is a fine preacher, speaker, and writer, and most of his work is excellent. However, in this case, he went way off the mark. I suspect he did so, possibly without intending to go as far as he did, out of a desire to help Steven Christoforou dig himself out of the hole he was in, but instead he only mixed himself up with this mess, and dug the hole deeper.

Fr. Andrew acknowledged that the Game of Thrones contains graphic content, described it as having "people basically, like,  having sex on screen, [and] really, you know, very graphic violence" (17:20).

When it was pointed out that this conversation defended watching the Game of Thrones, Fr. Andrew Damick denied that this was true, however the entire half or more of the show that was dedicated to this topic was a defense of the original Pop Culture podcast, and of how someone could in good conscience watch a show despite such graphic content.

For example, at about the 26:00 mark, Michael Landsman said‏:
"And we should probably say that for some people, you probably shouldn't watch Game of Thrones."
To which Fr. Andrew replied: "Yeah right, yeah..."

This clearly was suggesting that some people can watch the Game of Thrones without it being a problem, and one could easily take it to mean that this would be true of most people.

In addition to this, at one point the graphic content of the Game of Thrones was compared with the Scriptures. Ignoring the fact that the Bible is not a video, and that descriptions of evil acts in Scripture are not written to titillate the reader, whereas there is no doubt that the porn scenes in the Game of Throne are there precisely for that reason -- a somewhat massive difference, making the comparison ridiculous at best.

Watching it was also compared with eating meat sacrificed to idols, which is not something that is inherently evil, according to St. Paul, and so would be a matter of conscience about which different Christians could reach their own conclusions.

Later on in the show, Fr. Andrew said:
"Just to reemphasize, we're not talking about becoming impure. The question is what actually renders you impure. You know...we're not saying... you know... OK watch Game of Thrones and go ahead and just imitate everybody on there..." (47:45).
The obvious implication here is that while you should, of course, not imitate what you see on that show -- watching it does not necessarily involve anything impure.

Men of Stone, Iron, or Flesh?

If, for the sake of argument, we assumed that Steven Christoforou is a one in a billion man who can watch porn scenes without it being a cause for temptation, the problem remains that other people had to sin to produce these films in the first place. And aside from that, all the rest of the male population is not likely to fare so well spiritually.

Here is what St. John Chrysostom had to say about the effects of watching lewd plays in the theater of his time:
"Have you not listened to Christ when he said: “Anyone who looks at a woman with desire has already committed adultery with her”?  “What if I do not look at her with desire?” you ask. How will you be able to convince me?  For if anyone cannot control what he watches, but is so enthusiastic about doing so, how will he be able to remain virtuous after he has finished watching?  Is your body made of stone? Or iron? You are clothed with flesh, human flesh, which is inflamed by desire as easily as grass [catches fire].
Why do I talk about the theatre? Often if we meet a woman in the marketplace, we are alarmed. But you sit in your upper seat, where there is such an invitation to outrageous behaviour, and see a woman, a prostitute, entering bareheaded and with a complete lack of shame, dressed in golden garments, flirting coquettishly and singing harlots’ songs with seductive tunes, and uttering disgraceful words. She behaves so shamelessly that if you watch her and give consideration, you will bow your head in shame. Do you dare to say you suffer no human reaction? Is your body made of stone? Or iron? I shall not refrain from saying the same things again. Surely you are not a better philosopher than those great and noble men, who were cast down merely by such a sight? Have you not heard what Solomon says: “If someone walks onto a fire of coals, will he not burn his feet? If someone lights a fire in his lap, will he not burn his clothing? It is just the same for the man who goes to a woman that doesn’t belong to him.” For even if you did not have intimate relations with the prostitute, in your lust you coupled with her, and you committed the sin in your mind. And it was not only at that time, but also when the theatre has closed, and the woman has gone away, her image remains in your soul, along with her words, her figure, her looks, her movement, her rhythm, and her distinctive and meretricious tunes; and having suffered countless wounds you go home. Is it not this that leads to the disruption of households? Is it not this that leads to the destruction of temperance, and the break up of marriages? Is it not this that leads to wars and battles, and odious behaviour lacking any reason? For when, saturated with that woman, you return home as her captive, your wife appears more disagreeable, your children more burdensome, and your servants troublesome, and your house superfluous. Your customary concerns seem to annoy you when they relate to managing your necessary business, and everyone who visits is an irritating nuisance.
The cause of this is that you do not return home alone, but keeping the prostitute with you. She does not go visibly and openly, which would have been easier. For your wife could have quickly driven her away. But she is ensconced in your mind and your consciousness, and she lights within you the Babylonian furnace, or rather something much worse. For it is not tow, naphtha and pitch, but her qualities mentioned above that provide fuel for the fire, and everything is upside down. It is just like people suffering from a fever, who have no reason to rebuke those who attend them, but because of the affliction of their illness are unpleasant to everyone, reject their food, insult their doctors, are bad tempered with their families and furious with those who care for them. Just so those who suffer from this dread disease are restless and vexed, and see that woman at every turn. What a terrible state of affairs!"(Homily against those who have abandoned the church and deserted it for hippodromes and theaters, emphasis added).
We have an epidemic of porn addiction in this country. The last thing we need to be hearing from leaders in the Orthodox Church is that watching a TV series with scenes that are undeniably pornographic is acceptable, in any way, shape, or form.

Rather than defending the original podcast, that podcast should be deleted, along with the subsequent podcast that defended the original one.

Update:

Fr. Andrew Damick has posted a further response on this on Facebook:
"A word of comment on our most recent episode ("In the World But Not of the World: Purity vs. Engagement"):
If what you came away from the episode with is the question of whether it's okay for Christians to watch "Game of Thrones," you missed the point.
Some folks who've missed the point actually accused us and our guests of promoting pornography! If that's what you think of us, I can't imagine a response to that, because nothing we say will sound legitimate.
That said, we all utterly reject porn. It should go without saying, but apparently it doesn't.
Also, if the question of whether "Game of Thrones" really is pornography is what you came away with, you also missed the point. Of *course* if it's all just porn there's nothing worthwhile there. But that is actually part of what's debatable and isn't a given. None of us is saying that we should go exploring porn. But that's still not what our episode was about. 
So what was it about? 
It was about the question of how we interpret our world. It was about whether and how to engage and also whether and how to remain pure. 
Fundamentally, it was about the assertion that purity and engagement are not opposites. You can engage with the culture and also remain pure. 
There's certainly a lot of room to discuss what remaining pure requires and what good engagement looks like. 
This is why we paired up discussing the controversy around the Pop Culture Coffee Hour episode with the controversy that surrounded our video ("3 Bad Ways and 3 Good Ways to Talk Religion"). 
What I hope will emerge from what is now a meta-meta-discussion is that we really should ask people what they mean when they say something, especially if what they say sounds crazy to us. Sadly, not one of the comments we've received accusing us of supporting porn actually asked if that was what we meant. It was just easier to accuse fellow Christians of the unthinkable. 
At one point during all this, I had someone say to me, "Words mean things," given in response to my saying that I didn't mean what he was saying. But words *don't* mean things. *People* mean things. And if you're more interested in how you can interpret someone's words to mean things he rejects than in finding out what he means, then you've got a real problem. 
What this illustrates is how shows like The Areopagus and PCCH really are needed. Real engagement requires asking questions and finding out who the other person is, not just leveling accusations or blanket condemnation. 
As always, thanks for listening. And let's keep engaging. It's a little rough and tumble out there sometimes, but it's still worth it."
We have contradictory statements here that do not make sense. Fr. Andrew acknowledged the Game of Thrones contains pornography -- he described the show as "people basically, like,  having sex on screen." And here he says that he "utterly reject" pornography. The dictionary would suggest that if you "utterly reject" something, this means you absolutely and without qualifications reject it. However Fr. Andrew then says that if the Game of Thrones was "all just porn," he would "of course" reject it. So the question is, how much porn does a movie or TV show have to have before that utterly rejection actually results in one not being able to watch it? If you really "utterly reject porn," and if words actually do have meaning, you would have to utterly reject a series that has regular porn scenes, and do so without qualification.

So why not just say: "Orthodox Christians should not watch shows which contain porn, because we utterly reject porn, and the Game of Thrones has that which we utterly reject"? Never in the entire course of the podcast he did on this subject did anyone on that show say this, and he still has not said it. He should say so, and say so clearly.

For More Information, see:

Christians and Entertainment

The Text of the Sermon "When Lot Pitched His Tent Toward Sodom (Genesis 13:1-13)

The Audio of the Sermon "When Lot Pitched His Tent Toward Sodom (Genesis 13:1-13)

The Threefold Cord

Friday, September 15, 2017

Christians and Entertainment


In a recent sermon, I addressed the problem of Christians in our time who seem to have rather large gaps in their understanding of Christian morality -- particularly with regard to the question of entertainment. You can listen to that sermon here:
When Lot Pitched His Tent Toward Sodom (Genesis 13:1-13)
Mother Cornelia (Rees) has also written an excellent article on the same subject, which shows what the Fathers had to say about Christians and unwholesome entertainment:
A Patristic Checkmate on the Game of Thrones
But in more practical terms, how should an Orthodox Christian in our times discern what entertainment is acceptable, and what should be avoided? Also, how do you deal with raising children in the context of the internet and ubiquitous access to it via various mobile devices?

Guiding Principles

The Christian life is a life of the pursuit of holiness, "without which no man shall see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14). Obviously, this is a struggle, particularly in the evil days in which we live. We have to keep a constant watch over our minds and hearts to keep them from falling back into sin. And since Christ has given us the principle that we cannot simply refrain from sinful actions, but must also refrain from sinful thoughts (Matthew 5:27-28), any entertainment that feeds the passions and presents us with temptations is not acceptable.

Since we say to God when we pray the Psalms “I have no unlawful thing before mine eyes” (Psalm 100[101]:3), we need to make sure that we actually live accordingly. Consequently, turning on a movie that you know contains graphic scenes that can only feed the passions is completely antithetical to this.

St. Paul admonishes us in Philippians 4:8:
"Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."
And there are so many good and wholesome things for us to occupy our time with, that we could never exhaust them in a thousand lifetimes, and so why should waste any of our time feeding our minds with filth?

As St. John Chrysostom warns us:
"Do you not know that just as when we hand over money to our servants, and we demand accounts from them down to the last obol [a small silver coin, equaling 1/6 of an average man's daily wage], in the same way God will demand an account from us of the days of our life, as to how we have spent each day? What then shall we say? What shall be our defense, when we are requested to give our accounts of that day? For your sake the sun rose, and the moon brightened the night, and the intricate pattern of the stars shone forth. Winds blew for your sake, and rivers flowed. For your sake seeds sprouted and plants grew, and the course of nature preserved its own order. Day appeared and night followed. And all of this happened for your sake. But do you, when all creation serves you, satisfy the desire of the devil? You have rented such a home from God, I mean this world, but you have not paid the rent. And you were not satisfied with the first day, but on the second day, when you should have paused for a while from the evil that was enveloping you, you returned again this time to the theater. You ran from smoke into fire, descending into another pit that was even worse. Old men shamed their grey hair, and young men threw their youth away. Fathers brought their sons, from the beginning guiding inexperienced youth into the pits of depravity, so it would not have been a mistake to call those men child killers rather than fathers, as they surrendered their children’s souls to evil. What kind of evil, you ask. Because of it I am in agony, because although you are ill you do not know you are ill or call the doctor. You have become filled with adultery, and you ask “What kind of evil?” Have you not listened to Christ when he said: “Anyone who looks at a woman with desire has already committed adultery with her”?  “What if I do not look at her with desire?” you ask. How will you be able to convince me?  For if anyone cannot control what he watches, but is so enthusiastic about doing so, how will he be able to remain virtuous after he has finished watching?  Is your body made of stone? Or iron? You are clothed with flesh, human flesh, which is inflamed by desire as easily as grass (Homily against those who have abandoned the church and deserted it for hippodromes and theaters).
On the other hand, one could take this so far as to assume that we should not have any leisure time or wholesome entertainment, but this would be to go to an opposite extreme, which is also unhealthy. It is not possible for anyone to constantly be at 100% productivity. Human beings cannot sustain that. In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, we find this saying regarding St. Anthony the Great:
"A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, 'Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.' So he did. The old man then said, 'Shoot another,' and he did so. Then the old man said, 'Shoot yet again and the hunter replied 'If I bend my bow so much I will break it.' Then the old man said to him, 'It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.' When he heard these words “the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened" (Benedicta Ward, translator, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Alphabetical Collection (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975, 1984 revised edition), p. 3f.).
Also, I recall our own Archbishop Peter's talk about his remembrances of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, and he mentioned St. John asking him and the other altar boys at the cathedral in San Francisco what their plans were for the afternoon one day, and they were planning on going to see a movie (a clean movie, mind you). Not only did he not chastise them for it, he gave them some money for it. So clearly there is a balanced approach that is perfectly pious and Orthodox, and that is what we need to try to find in our current context.

So in sum, whatever we do in our leisure time it should ideally be of positive benefit to our minds and souls, but at a bare minimum it should at least not be harmful. When you have taken the time to watch a movie, for example, there should be something uplifting about it. Virtue and goodness should be affirmed in some way -- and even a good comedy will do that. Hopefully, you should have improved your mind in some way as well. Otherwise you are at best wasting your time; and at worse, actively harming yourself and your family.

Getting Down to Brass Tacks

I don't think having cable or satellite service in the home is a good idea. There are some good programs one can find on  them, but you are paying for a package, and so supporting a lot of filth. So I would say, cut the cord. That's, of course, my opinion, and I don't state it as binding on anyone else. However, if you are not going to cancel your cable or satellite service, you should block any of the channels that contain objectionable content, so that if you are channel surfing (which is generally not a good idea), you won't even see what these channels are showing. This is especially important if you have children in the home. You can also use the "V-Chip" to block specific objectionable content... however, this typically does not block commercials which can often be as bad or worse than the actual shows themselves.
See: How To Watch TV Without Compromising Your Values
It is a very bad habit to leave a TV running for background noise throughout the day. Many people have their TV running all the time. It stifles conversations, and it is a mindless thing that is sure to dramatically reduce the average IQ of your family. The TV should only be on when their is something worth watching. You should also try to limit how much time is spent watching things on TV in general.

When it comes to movies, you should try to find out if the content is wholesome before you even think about watching one. There are Christian movie reviewers that will give you a very good idea of whether or not a movie is going to be worth your time.

There are still some occasional movies that are both clean and well done, but another option is to explore the many decades of films that are out there that were made in the past. For example, I think one of the best movies ever made is the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice, with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. Almost every actor in the film is perfect. The cinematography is amazing. The screen play was by Aldous Huxley (not a Christian, but a great writer, and one who certainly came from a much more Christian culture than our own), and it is based on one the best novels ever written in English, and even though the movie is not a Christian film per se, it is rooted in a Christian ethos, and it affirms what is good and noble.

One bad approach is to watch movies you know have objectionable content, and just plan on fast forwarding past the bad parts. You are still watching and supporting bad movies. You are exposing yourself and your family to at least some objectionable content, because you don't know to fast forward a film until you begin to see what you need to fast forward beyond. This all has the effective of desensitizing you and your family to garbage that you should not tolerate.

If you get a bum steer on a movie, and despite your best efforts you find that it either has objectionable content, or it is simple a bad movie with no redeeming qualities, be prepared to turn it off. At the very least, if you are watching it with your family, you can point out what was wrong with it, and so gain some benefit by its negative example.

Read More, Watch Less

One of the advantages to removing broadcast and cable TV from your home is that it will make it a lot more likely that you will read more. That is a good thing even if you don't have children in your home. If you do have children, read good classic books to them, and then when you are done with a book, watch a good movie version of it. This will teach them to love books. They will generally see that the books are better than the movies, but this can help them better appreciate both the movie and the book.

Play Good Music

It doesn't have to all be classical music, but it should all be wholesome. We made a point of playing classical music for our children from the time they were in the crib, and in both cases our children turned out to be very musically inclined. It could be coincidental, but I don't think so. Baroque music in particular is very good background music for reading and study.

Electronic Devices and the Internet

Obviously as your children get older, you are going to have less of an ability to control what they see and do, but you should use that power wisely while you have it. There is no reason why young children need to have smart phones, or have unsupervised access to the Internet. If you home-school your children, this is obviously a lot easier, but if you have your children in a public or private school, buck the trend, and don't give them smart phones, lap tops, or tablets. If they have any cell phone at all, get them a basic phone that only has the ability to make calls and send text messages.

We are told that children need to have all of these things from an early age so they can be tech savvy, but none of these devices are difficult to learn how to use, and if they don't have unlimited access until they are more mature, it will not hurt them. And instead, they might learn how to actually do math, write with a pen, and read books -- all of which are dying arts for most young people these days.

I would also use an internet filter, especially if you have boys. Again, the older they get, the less these things will be effective, and so hopefully they will learn self control as your controls as a parent are gradually reduced.

You are not going to be able to shield your children completely from all the filth that is so prevalent in our culture, but you should make the effort, and show them by your example how they should approach these things when they are the ones that will have to make these decisions for themselves and their own children.

Update:

Canon 100 of the Sixth Ecumenical Council states:
“Let thine eyes look aright, and keep thy heart with all diligence” (Prov. 4:25 and 23), wisdom bids us. For the sensation of the body can easily foist their influence upon the soul. We therefore command that henceforth in no way whatever shall any pictures be drawn, painted, or otherwise wrought, whether in frames or otherwise hung up, that appeal to the eye fascinatingly, and corrupt the mind, and excite inflammatory urgings to the enjoyment of shameful pleasures. If anyone should attempt to do this, let him be excommunicated."
The Rudder of St. Nicodemus then has the following comment on this canon:
"Inasmuch as some men were wont to paint or draw on walls and boards lascivious pictures, such as women stark naked or bathing or being kissed by men, and other such shameful scenes, which deceive the eyes of beholders and excite the mind and heart to carnal desires, therefore and on this account the present Canon commands that no such pictures shall by any means whatsoever be painted or drawn or sketched. If anyone should make any such pictures, let him be excommunicated, since all the five senses of the body, and especially the first and royalest one, the eyesight, is easily led to impress the pictures of those things which it sees into the soul. That is why Solomon recommends that our eyes look aright at things that are fine and good and beautiful, and that everyone of us keep his mind and heart away from the shameful objects of the senses" (D. Cummings, trans., The Rudder of the Orthodox Catholic Church: The Compilation of the Holy Canons Saints Nicodemus and Agapius (West Brookfield, MA: The Orthodox Christian Educational Society, 1983), p. 406f).
For More Information:

The Text of the Sermon "When Lot Pitched His Tent Toward Sodom (Genesis 13:1-13)

Stump the Priest: Time Management

Friday, September 01, 2017

Stump the Priest: Our Holy and God-Bearing Fathers


Question: "In our services we often speak of "our holy and God-bearing fathers, and all the saints..." I understand that the reference is made to the Church's founding fathers, but who is meant specifically? All the Apostles? Just Peter and Paul?"

This is an interesting question. Like many seemingly simple questions, it is not as simple as it might seem at first glance. On the one hand, you might think it could refer to all of the saints that have gone on before us, but then after they are mentioned, we then hear "and all the saints," which would be redundant if they referred to the same exact group of people. So just from the meaning of the words alone, I think we can say that we are talking about some group of saints, but not all of them.

I would say that it certainly refers to the Apostles. No doubt this also includes the Church Fathers... who are actually considered saints by the Church. Often the phrase "Church Father" is applied to any important Christian writer during the patristic period; but those, like Tertullian and Origen, that are not considered saints because their teachings contained significant errors rejected by the Church, can only be called "Church Fathers" in a very loose sense of the term, and are not what we are talking about here. It would include the Fathers of the various Ecumenical and Local Councils that the Church has received as having ecumenical authority... but again, only including the participants of those councils that are saints. We may not know all the names of these saints, but we do know the names of some that are definitely not saints, and so they would not be included.

But are we excluding saints of the Old Testament, and does this exclude women? Not at all. In many languages a masculine word is often used in a way that is inclusive of males and females, and that is true in this case. For example, we have two Sundays of the Fathers that are specifically focused on the Saints of the Old Testament -- the two Sundays prior to Christmas. On the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers (which is two Sundays before Christmas), we not only sing about the many prophets and saints of the Old Testament who were men, but in the canon of the Ninth Ode, we hear about some of our Foremothers:
"By Thy might, O Lord, Thou didst of old make Thy daughters powers: Hannah and Judith, Deborah and Huldah, Jael and Esther, Sarah and Miriam the sister of Moses, Rachel and Rebecca, and Ruth the exceeding wise." 
And on the Sunday before Christmas (which is also called "the Sunday of the Holy Fathers" and sometimes "the Sunday of the Genealogy," because we read the genealogy of Christ from Matthew 1 at the Liturgy), we also sing at the Praises:
"The Virgin Theotokos, she who through the ages hath been preached on earth by the prophets in their utterances, she whom the wise patriarchs and the assemblies of the righteous proclaim, with whom the comeliness of women joineth chorus: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Hannah, together with the glorious Miriam, the sister of Moses. With them all the ends of the world rejoice and all creation rendereth honor, for the Creator and God of all cometh to be born in the flesh and to grant us great mercy."
In addition to the Prophets, Apostles, and the Fathers who have instructed the Church in the Faith, we also include those saints who were ascetical teachers. And here again, we find that this does not exclude our spiritual mothers. For example, in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, in addition to such saints as St. Anthony the Great, and St. Poemen, we also find the sayings of St. Theodora of Alexandria, St. Sarah of the Desert, and St. Syncletica of Alexandria

So I think we can say that when we speak of "our holy and God-bearing fathers," we are speaking of those of both the Old and New Testaments, and both fathers and mothers, who helped lay the foundations and build up our faith and our Church, both in terms of their examples and their teachings. And this does not only include those of the distant past, but also more recent examples such as St. Cosmas of Aetolia, St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, the Optina Elders, St. John of Kronstadt, and St. John of Shanghai, and many others. And we will continue to add to their number until Christ returns. 

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Sin and Heresy of Racial Separatism

An Icon St. Moses the Ethiopian, from a Monastery Church in Macedonia

There are different degrees of racial and ethnic prejudice. For many, it is very unconscious, but it is manifested by a desire to stick with those of your own kind, and to exclude others... at least in certain contexts. There are some, however, in the Orthodox Church who are overtly racist and antisemitic, and have ideological reasons for their views. Such people are thankfully a tiny minority, but while we should not make too much of them and blow the problem out of all proportion, we should not make too little of them either. As with any sin, we have to be clear where the Church stands. Furthermore, we have to fight even unconscious forms of racism and ethnocentricism because these things are barriers that prevent people from coming into the Orthodox Church.

Even the most unabashed racists that claim to be Christians generally have enough sense to know that they cannot admit to hating anyone and still make such a claim with a straight face, because the Bible is very clear on the subject (e.g., Leviticus 19:17Luke 6:27-281 John 2:9-11). However, they will often argue that while they do not hate other races, their love for their own race is what motivates them, and that they want what is best for them -- and they see some form of racial separatism as a necessary part of their "love." But is such a view consistent with Scripture and the teachings of the Church?

The Bible makes it clear that all men have a common origin in Adam and Eve, and so we are all part of the same human family. The Israelites certainly maintained some separation from Gentiles, but not for racial reason, but because of their faith in the one true God, which their neighbors generally did not share -- and also because of the depravity of the pagans on the one hand, and the weakness of the Israelites in being able to resist falling into their sins. Racial separatists point to Ezra forbidding the Israelites from having foreign wives (Ezra 10), but the issue there was the fact that these women were pagans. However, Gentiles could become part of Israel, if they embraced the faith, and this often happened. There is the case in which the Prophet Moses married an Ethiopian woman, for example. King David's own grandmother Ruth was a Gentile who embraced the faith of Israel, and an entire book of the Bible is dedicated to telling her story, which shows her to have been a virtuous woman, whose conversion was completely sincere. And not only was she an ancestor of David, but also of Christ Himself. That same genealogy (of both David and Christ) also includes Rahab the Harlot, who was a Canaanite.

The modern idea of race is not even found in the Bible. You do find racial characteristics noted in some cases, and there certainly is an awareness that the human race is divided into nations which speak different languages, but this is a result of sin. At the Tower of Babel, God confused the languages of men and divided them, to limit the spread of sin (Genesis 11). But these division are undone in Christ, as the Kontakion of the Feast of Pentecost teaches us:
"Once, when He descended and confounded the tongues, the Most High divided the nations; and when He divided the tongues of fire, He called all men into unity; and with one accord we glorify the All-Holy Spirit."
In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave or free -- we are all one in Him (Galatians 3:28).

Had the early Church functioned on the basis that racial separatism was acceptable, the Jews would never have mingled with the Gentiles, and there probably wouldn't be much of a Gentile Church  to speak of. However, the record in Scripture and in history shows that this was not what was encouraged or even allowed by the Apostles. There certainly were many issues that came up in this regard, because Jews had a long tradition of keeping their distance from Gentiles, but St. Paul constantly admonished both Jewish and Gentile believers to set aside their differences, and to have fellowship with one another. Within a couple of generations there ceased to be any distinction between Christians who came from these different backgrounds.

One of the great desert fathers of the Church is St. Moses the Ethiopian. He was called "the Ethiopian" for the same reason that St. John the Russian was called "the Russian", and St. Maximus the Greek was called "the Greek" -- he was a foreigner to the people that he lived among, and St. Moses was noticeably different from those around him because he was black. Yet not only was St. Moses allowed to live among the other monks who were not black, he was eventually made a priest, and was one of the most respected spiritual fathers of his time. Stories about him, along with his sayings are preserved in "The Sayings of the Desert Fathers," which is one of the most important spiritual classics of the Orthodox Church.

There is nothing in the Tradition of the Church that supports a racist or separatist view. There are canons, for example, that prohibit an Orthodox Christian from marrying a pagan or a non-Christian Jew, but none that even consider the issue of race. A mixed marriage in the Orthodox Church is when a non-Orthodox Christian is allowed to marry an Orthodox Christian.

In 1872, a Synod in Constantinople specifically condemned as a heresy "phyletism," which was the idea that the Church should be divided along ethnic lines:
"We denounce, censure, and condemn phyletism, to wit, racial discrimination and nationalistic disputes, rivalries, and dissensions in the Church of Christ, as antithetical to the teaching of the Gospel and the Sacred Canons of our Blessed Fathers, "who uphold the Holy Church and, ordering the entire Christian commonwealth, guide it to Divine piety"" (Τὰ Δογματικὰ καὶ Συμβολικὰ Μνημεῖα τῆς Ὀρϑοδόξου Καϑολικῆς Ἐκκλη­σίας, Vol. II, pp. 1014–1015, Quoted in The Œcumenical Synods of the Orthodox Church, A Concise History, by Fr. James Thornton, (Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2012), p 152).
The Russian Orthodox Church's position on this issue is clearly stated in "The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church":
"The Old Testament people of Israel were the prototype of the peoples of God — the New Testament Church of Christ. The redemptive feat of Christ the Saviour initiated the being of the Church as new humanity, the spiritual posterity of the forefather Abraham. By His Blood Christ «hast redeemed us to God out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation» (Rev. 5:9). The Church by her very nature is universal and therefore supranational. In the Church «there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek» (Rom. 10:12). Just as God is not the God of the Jews alone but also of the Gentiles (Rom. 3:29), so the Church does not divide people on either national or class grounds: in her «there is neither Greek, nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all» (Col. 3:11).
...Being universal by nature, the Church is at the same time one organism, one body (1 Cor. 12:12). She is the community of the children of God, «a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people… which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God» (1 Pet. 2:9-10). The unity of these new people is secured not by its ethnic, cultural or linguistic community, but by their common faith in Christ and Baptism. The new people of God «have no continuing city here, but seek one to come» (Heb. 13:14). The spiritual homeland of all Christians is not earthly Jerusalem but Jerusalem «which is above» (Gal. 4:26). The gospel of Christ is preached not in the sacred language understandable to one people, but in all tongues (Acts. 2:3-11). The gospel is not preached for one chosen people to preserve the true faith, but so that «at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father» (Phil. 2:10-11)" (The Church and Nation, II, 1).
Do we have national Churches? Yes... and no. We have local Churches. The boundaries of these local Churches often corresponded to national borders, but not necessarily. In the Roman Empire, you had several local Churches within one nation, and several of these local Church extended beyond the bounds of the Roman Empire. But while a local Church may have a predominant ethnic character, they do not exclude those outside of the ethnicity of the majority. In Russia, for example, you have a large number of ethnic groups which are all Orthodox, and which are all welcome to commune and fellowship in any parish.

Aside from the fact that racial separatism is contrary to both Scripture and Tradition, it also has a very practical problem, which is that it has the effect of excluding people from the Church. Our great responsibility as Christians is to fulfill Christ's great commission:
"Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen" (Matthew 28:19-20).
The word translated "nations" here, in Greek is a plural form of the word "ethnos," from which we get the English words "ethnic" and "ethnicity". How can we make disciples of every ethnic group, and teach them to observe all the things that Christ has commanded us if we separate ourselves from them because of their ethnicity? It is not possible. And because it is not possible, it is also not Christian.

Update:

St. Justin Martyr wrote:
"...we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies, and endeavour to persuade those who hate us unjustly to live conformably to the good precepts of Christ, to the end that they may become partakers with us of the same joyful hope of a reward from God the ruler of all" (First Apology, Chapter 14).
For More Information:

Sermon: Hate and Racism

Moses' Black Wife

Stump the Priest: Where do the Races Come From?

A discussion on Ancient Faith Radio: "Ethnocentrism in the Orthodox Church"

Orthodox History: The “Bulgarian Question” and the 1872 Council of Constantinople, Part 1 (which is followed by 6 more parts, linked at the end of each part)


Saturday, August 19, 2017

Stump the Priest: Converts and Culture


Question: "How can someone best assimilate into the ‘culture’ of Orthodoxy even picking up other national customs without losing their own nationality (being of the USA for example)? How do we find that middle balance of taking the good and leaving the bad from our own culture?"

There is no such thing as a generic Orthodoxy. Our faith is handed to us by particular people, who come from particular cultural expressions of the faith. Consequently I think a convert can only embrace the particular expression of the faith as they receive it, in the context that they have converted in.  Some converts have gone so far as to actually try to adopt the ethnic identity of whatever Orthodox Jurisdiction they convert into -- I have even heard of cases in which people Russified their surname. This is of course ridiculous, and is neither necessary, nor helpful.

When I first encountered the Orthodox Faith, it was in the Russian Orthodox context. I was never under any illusions that I could become a Russian, nor did I have any great desire to do so. When the Orthodox Faith was brought to the Slavs, they embraced many aspects of the Orthodox Byzantine culture that brought them the Faith, but they remained Slavs, and with time, they in turn made the Faith their own, and a new Orthodox culture developed. You could go back one step further and talk about the Jewish culture of the Apostles, and the interaction that the Greek converts had with it, which ultimately developed into the Byzantine Greek culture. So while I am not a Russian, nor could I ever become a Russian, my experience of Orthodoxy came in a Russian package, and so I am Russian Orthodox, and love and appreciate the best aspects of Russian culture. 

Anything in any culture that is contrary to the Orthodox Christian Faith has to go. But anything that is good or virtuous in a culture can be embraced. The Greeks certainly did not give up the best aspects of their culture when they embraced the Christian Faith, and the Church has been enriched by the Greek Christian culture that came out of that. The same is true of Americans. Anything that is good in the culture that you have when you enter the Church you get to keep.

And while we have to embrace the expression of Orthodoxy as we receive it, since we live in a context where we have many other cultural expressions of Orthodoxy, we should resist the temptation to look down on other practices that are no less authentic, but nevertheless different than what we are familiar with.

Someday, God willing, we will see a distinctly American Orthodox culture, but attempts to force that into existence prematurely have met with bad results, and I think this fails to understand how Orthodoxy changes a culture. The Russians did not decide one day that they were going to toss out Greek culture, and concoct a Russian version of it. It happened naturally, as their national Church matured. The American Church has a very long way to go.

However, none of this means that those of us whose language is English need to have the services in a foreign language. The texts of the services have all been translated into English, and so there is no reason why we should not use them.

What a convert should do is try to learn what they can from the most pious and mature Orthodox Christians they encounter in their parish, and emulate them. You will inevitably find some faults in such people, and so those things you should not follow. And you certainly should not emulate the bad habits of those who have grown up on the Church. For example, many Orthodox Christians have a bad a habit of coming to Church late, or coming to Church inconsistently. Ignore the bad example of those people, and imitate the ones that are doing what they should be doing.

One temptation for any convert is to take things to extremes, and so finding the balance is something that you have to work towards. For example, while we can and should learn from monasticism, unless and until you go to a monastery, you should not try to live like you are an Athonite monk. For one thing, it's not going to work, and you are likely to have the wheels of your faith come off at some point. Keep your focus on trying to live like a normal pious layman, and if God leads you to a monastery eventually, you will be a lot more likely to work out your salvation there, if you have learned how to work it out in a balanced way, while living in the world.. We should always remember the wise words of St. Poemen the Great: 
"Everything that goes to excess comes from the demons" (Benedicta Ward, translator, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Alphabetical Collection (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975, 1984 revised edition), p. 185.).
For More Information:

 Renewing the Mind: Acquiring an Orthodox outlook

Acquiring an Orthodox Mindset (a section of articles from Orthodoxinfo.com)

Friday, August 11, 2017

St. Gregory the Theologian and the Literal Interpretation of Scripture


George Demacopoulos gave another lecture at the Eagle River Institute which was recently posted on Ancient Faith Radio, and in the course of that lecture he made the following statement:
"St. Gregory the Theologian actually wrote, in one of his most famous orations on the Trinity, that a Christian who insists on a literal interpretation of Scripture, does so to mask his lack of genuine faith. Let me repeat that... St. Gregory says, quote: "a Christian who insists upon a literal interpretation of Scripture, does so to mask his lack of genuine faith"" ("Was Byzantine Christianity the Normative Orthodox Experience?: Part 2," beginning at about the 12:20 mark).
The first time he referenced the alleged quoted, it could have been taken as if  he was giving the gist of the quote, rather than an exact quote: "St. Gregory... wrote... that..." But he then repeated it, and prefaced it by saying "Quote," which would normally only be used to preface a precise quotation. However, the actual quote bears very little resemblance to what he referenced in this lecture.

Here it is, at least as it is translated in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers translation:
"They then who are angry with us on the ground that we are bringing in a strange or interpolated God, viz.:—the Holy Ghost, and who fight so very hard for the letter, should know that they are afraid where no fear is; and I would have them clearly understand that their love for the letter is but a cloak for their impiety, as shall be shown later on, when we refute their objections to the utmost of our power" ("Oration 31, A Selected Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, series 2, vol. 7, eds. Henry Wace and Philip Schaff (New York: Christian, 1887-1900), p. 318).
For comparison, here is a more recent translation:
"Certain people, then, thinking that we have introduced the Holy Spirit as a strange or counterfeit god; are angry at us and fight very hard to defend “the letter”. But they should know that they are afraid where there is nothing to fear; 6 and I would have them clearly understand that their love for “the letter” is but a cloak for their impiety, as we shall see later on when we refute their objections to the utmost of our power" (Gregory of Nazianzus: Five Theological Orations, Translated with an introduction and notes by Dr. Stephen Reynolds, 2011, p. 98, <https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/36303/1/Gregory%20of%20Nazianzus%20Theological%20Orations.pdf> )
This translation provides an interesting footnote to the phrase "the letter":
“the letter”. I.e. of the Scriptures. Gregory does not say “the letter of the Scriptures,” because he will not concede to the opponents he now has in view that they are, in truth, faithfully interpreting the Scriptures. Cf. Oration 4, § 1 (page 71), where Gregory spoke of “difficulties and objections which were ripped from the holy Scriptures by those who profane the Bible and pervert the sense of its texts in order to win the mob to their side and confuse the way of truth.” 
When you look at the actual quote, it is clear that Dr. George Demacopoulos has not even accurately presented the gist of the actual quote. St. Gregory was not attacking those "who insist on literal interpretations," he was attacking those who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, who insisted on exclusively literal interpretations as a cloak for their impiety -- and their impiety was not that they interpreted Scripture literally, but that they denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

It may be that when he was writing the notes to this lecture, he was referencing this by memory, and so we may charitably assume that he did not intentionally misquote the text, but the fact is, he has misquoted it, for whatever reason, and the actual quote does not even come close to justifying the assertion he made based on it.

If he had loosely said that St. Gregory the Theologian attacked those who insisted on an exclusively literal interpretation of Scripture, that would at least be a plausible take on what he is saying, but in the actual context of the quote, even that is a stretch, because he is not attacking the idea of interpreting the Scriptures literally. He is attacking their pretense of doing so, which he makes clear later on in the oration, when he says:
"But since you hold so very close to the letter (although you are contending against the letter)..." (NPNF2, Vol. 7, p. 323). 
So in actual fact, St. Gregory is saying that these heretics are not even getting their literal interpretation of Scripture correct. If his point had been to attack literal interpretations per se, he would have spent a good bit of time arguing that point, and showing why a non-literal interpretation was preferable. But that is not what you find in this text.

The Fathers do not deny the legitimacy of literal interpretations of Scripture (at least ones that are no more literal than the texts are intended to be taken in), though they certainly do affirm other senses of Scripture as well. But here he is not arguing, for example, that you have to take an allegorical interpretation of Scripture to defend the Trinity -- you just have to take a non-willfully-stupid interpretation of the Scriptures:
"But now the swarm of testimonies shall burst upon you from which the Deity of the Holy Ghost shall be shown to all who are not excessively stupid, or else altogether enemies to the Spirit, to be most clearly recognized in Scripture" (NPNF2, Vol. &, p. 327).
Also, when it comes to St. Gregory the Theologian's view of Scripture, one should consider the following statement:
“We however, who extend the accuracy of the Spirit to the merest stroke and tittle, will never admit the impious assertion that even the smallest matters were dealt with haphazard by those who have recorded them, and have thus been borne in mind down to the present day: on the contrary, their purpose has been to supply memorials and instructions for our consideration under similar circumstances, should such befall us, and that the examples of the past might serve as rules and models, for our warning and imitation” (NPNF2-07 St. Gregory Nazianzen, Oration II: In Defence of His Flight to Pontus, and His Return, After His Ordination to the Priesthood, with an Exposition of the Character of the Priestly Office , ch. 105, p.225).
Here St. Gregory references the words of the Lord: "And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail" (Luke 16:17, c.f. Matthew 5:18). St. Gregory not only affirms the verbal inerrancy Scripture, but in fact affirms every jot and tittle inerrancy (jots and tittles being the smallest strokes of a pen).

What is not obvious is what exactly is it about taking the literal sense of Scripture seriously that George Demacopoulos is objecting to? I "insist" on a literal interpretation of "Thou shalt not murder," for example, but I also accept the more spiritual interpretations that Christ gives the commandment, and I think the Fathers of the Church would back me up both counts.

As I discussed in "Fundamental Errors: A Response to "Tradition Without Fundamentalism" by George Demacopoulos," I suspect the issue behind this, is the question of the Church's teachings on the subject of homosexuality (for the reasons stated in that article), though if George Demacopoulos wishes to dispute that, he need only clearly state what he believes to be the teaching of the Church on that subject. I would be happy to be corrected, if he simply affirmed that he believed that homosexual sex was inherently sinful, as opposed to arguing that somehow the literal sense of the Scriptures and canons on that subject should be reinterpreted to mean something else.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Beginning to Read and Understand the Bible, Part 3: In Context


For Part 1, see: Beginning to Read and Understand the Bible: First Steps

For Part 2, see: Beginning to Read and Understand the Bible, Part 2: Staying on Track

Types of Literature in the Bible (Genres)

To understand the Bible we need to understand how the different kinds of literature in the Bible actually work. We have different kinds of literature in own our culture, and we understand how they work. For example, when we read George Orwell's novel 1984, we know we are not reading a history of the the 1980's. There is truth in that book, but it does not function in the same way that a history book functions. We know what to expect when we read a comic book, and we know it works differently then a how-to guide. The various types of literature we find in the Bible have some features that are different from what we know from our own culture, and so we have to make some effort to try to understand how they work.

For example, we need to know that the patriarchal narratives are not intended to be taken as direct instructions on how we should live our lives. Sometimes we read about very admirable behavior, but in other cases the examples we find are negative, and are not there for us to "go and do likewise."

The proverbs we find in the Bible are wise saying that will generally prove to be true, but are not legal commandments -- you would generally be foolish to ignore them, but that's their point. The Ten Commandments, on the other hand, are not merely helpful hints for hopeful Hebrews -- they are moral laws that apply to us, and are not there for us to take or leave as we might wish.

This video does a good job of introducing the basics of the major literary types you find in the Bible:


You will also find some information on how various literary types work in a particular book of the Bible if you look up that book in a good Bible dictionary, and read what it says. You find much more detail in a good commentary or a Biblical Introduction, but for starters, your Bible dictionary should be sufficient to point you in the right direction.

We will come back to this in more detail in a subsequent series.

Levels of Meaning

Sometimes people ask whether or not we should take the Bible literally. The answer is that we should take it as literally as it is intended to be taken. There are many things in Scripture that clearly were not intended to be taken literally. For example, in the apocalyptic visions of the book of Revelation, read about a "fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads" (Revelation 12:3), but we are not expecting to encounter such a literal beast in the future. This is a symbolic vision, and we have to try to understand what the symbols mean to properly understand the text. But "Thou shalt not commit adultery" has a literal meaning, and we don't get to dismiss that literal meaning by interpreting it figuratively.

It is also true, however, that the same text can often be understood on more than one level. The fact that there can be more than one level of meaning does not negate the more obvious meanings of the passage -- it just means that can be additional meanings found in the same text.

There are traditionally four senses of Scripture, and you can read about those in more detail in these articles:
Sword in the Fire: 4 Senses of Scripture
OrthodoxWiki: Typology
But to simplify things a bit, just keep in mind that there is the level of meaning that is clearly intended by the text, but often there is a less obvious spiritual meaning of a text that you will find brought out in the services of the Church, and in the writings of the saints. You in fact see New Testament writers reading the Old Testament in precisely this way as well, and so this is not something that the Church made up, but comes from Christ and the Apostles (for example, in Galatians 4, St. Paul uses an allegorical interpretation of the story of Sarah and Hagar (which begins in Genesis 16 and ends in Genesis 21).

Becoming familiar with the more obvious meanings of Scripture will enable you to better grasp the deeper meanings you will find in the services and the Fathers.

Reading contextually

When reading Scripture, it is important to read particular parts of Scripture in their proper context.

There are three broad levels of context to keep in mind:
1. The immediate context of a passage within a book.
2. The context within the book as a whole. 
3. The context within the entirety of Scripture. 
Chapters, Verses, and Pericopes

With the exception of the Psalms, the chapter and verse divisions we have in our Bibles today are not original, or really all that ancient. Chapter divisions go back to the 13th century, and the verse divisions who know today were in place by the 16th century. These divisions usually make sense, but sometimes they actually can be deceptive, because they seem to mark a break between one chapter (or even one verse) and the next, when the break may not really be there in the text itself.

The Church has an older system of dividing the Gospels and Epistles into shorter readings that are read liturgically on a given day, and in a particular service. These divisions is called "pericopes," which literally means "a cutting-out" [you can hear how it is properly pronounced by clicking here]. "Pericope" is a Greek word. The word in Church Slavonic is "зача́ло" (zachalo).

Biblical scholars also speak of pericopes, but while the idea is very similar, there is a bit of a difference. Liturgical pericopes can vary. The same passage of Scripture might be divided up differently, for different liturgical occasions, because different aspects of the passage are being emphasized. When we speak of an interpretive (or exegetical) pericope, these do not change, though sometimes there may be some debate about where the lines should be drawn.

Interpretive pericopes are smaller sections of a book that represent a complete unit of the whole (for example, a distinct story, or parable). Sometimes these will follow chapter divisions, but often they will not. Usually, a given chapter of the Bible will have more than one of these subsections.

To see what we are talking about here, let's take a look at the Sermon on the Mount. Where does it begin? The sermon itself begins in Matthew chapter 5, but actually the end of chapter 4 is really the introduction. So you have sort of a preface that begins in Matthew 4:23 and ends in Matthew 5:2. In verse 3 the sermon begins, and does not conclude until chapter 7, verse 27, and then you have an afterword in 7:28-29 that sums up the response of the hearers to the sermon. But between Matthew 5:2 and 7:27 there are a number of interpretative pericopes that make up the total sermon, and should be examined both as distinct sections, but also in their broader context within the sermon. So for example, you would want to look at the Beatitudes as a distinct pericope (Matthew 5:3-12). Christ's discussion of how we are to be salt and light (5:13-16) is another pericope, etc.

You can see verbal ques and shifts of though that will mark were one section begins and ends. Sometimes it is not always so clear where one section ends and another begins, because one section is closely linked with the next. It is not crucial that you always get these divisions precisely right, you just want to keep them in mind, because the most immediate context of a verse is crucial to understanding what is being said. Fortunately, most contemporary bibles actually provide section headings that usually will tell you at least where the editors think these sections begin and end, and in the Orthodox Study Bible, for example, I think you will generally find these divisions to be accurate and helpful. See, for example, the NKJV's headings in the Sermon on the Mount.

You should also keep in mind, that it is often the cases that several pericopes in a row have a collective function in a book. That is certainly true of the Sermon on the Mount, but you see it in many other places as well. For example, in the Gospel of Luke, you have the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son all grouped together, and they all have similar points, but they are also distinct units.

And when we speak of interpreting a passage in the light of its context in the entirety of Scripture, this works in two ways. On the one hand, other passages of Scripture often shed light on a passage. But on the other, we do not believe that Scripture contradicts itself, and so if you interpret a passage in a way that contradicts what the Scriptures as a whole teach, you are reading it wrong.

Reading with the Church

One of the most important ways that we must read the Scriptures in the proper context is by reading them in the context of the Church.

We have already talked about one way that we do this, and that is by ensuring that we interpret the Scriptures in a way that is consistent with the teachings of the Church. And we have also talked a bit about how to use the commentaries of the Fathers as we are able, and have access to them. But beyond that, while it is important for us to read the Scriptures on our own, we also need to study them together with others in the Church. We do this in the context of our immediate families -- every home being a little Church. We should also do this in our parishes. If there is a Bible study that you can participate in, this should be helpful. You also do this by attending the services, hearing the Scriptures read in the services, and also hearing them interpreted in the services of the Church, and by your priest or bishop when he preaches on them.

In St. John Chrysostom's time, people had multiple opportunities to hear sermons. The local bishop would often preach, and any of the priests might preach as well. St. John often preached sermons every day, as is evident from his homilies on the book of Genesis. Few today would have any opportunities remotely close to that. However, with the printing press and the internet, we have access to collections of sermons like that, and a lot more. Not only can you read the sermons of many Fathers and saints of the Church online or in books, but you can read and listen to sermons from contemporary clergy. Also many clergy podcast verse by verse Bible commentaries and Bible studies that they conduct in their parishes.

The opportunities are vast, in fact so vast that you could allow the vastness to overwhelm you. But if you are not sure where to start with such things, you can speak to your parish priest, and ask for pointers, and then go from there.

And again, don't try to do too much all at once. Focus on doing something, and doing it consistently.

In the future, there will be a follow-up series of posts that will talk about how to dig deeper into the Scriptures.

For More Information:

A Guide to Biblical Reference Texts

The Inerrancy of Scripture

Friday, July 28, 2017

Beginning to Read and Understand the Bible, Part 2: Staying on Track

Hearing the Scriptures

Most Christians for most of Church history did not own their own copy of the Scriptures (either in whole or in part). They heard the Scriptures read in Church. While sitting down and reading the text of the Bible is important, we certainly can listen to the Bible being read, and gain great benefit from it. With modern technology, you can listen to recordings on your phone or home computer, and these recordings are available for free. If you are strapped for free time, are a mother with small children that keep you busy, or spend a lot time on the road, this might be the best way for you to study the Scriptures. 

The King James Version was in fact translated with how it would appeal to the hearer in mind (not just the reader), and if you have difficulty reading the KJV, chances are good you will have an easier time listening to it.

And when you feel too tired to read, or are going through sections of Scripture that can seem tedious (like long lists of names in the book of Numbers), you may find listening much easier than reading.

The Journey of a Thousand Miles

The Chinese philosopher Laozi famously wrote: "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" (Dao De Jing 64). One of the points of this saying is that we should not be overwhelmed with the length of the journey, but simply begin it, taking one step at a time. A more contemporary saying begins with the question "How do you eat an elephant?" with the answering being "One bite at a time." This is also true of reading the Scriptures. The Bible is a very large book (or more precisely, a large collection of many books), and depending on how diligently you read it, it can take a long time to make your way through it. But if you read 3 chapters a day, you will have read most of the Bible in a year.

However, a better way to look at this is not that reading the Bible is a very long journey that will be difficult to complete, but rather that it is a lifelong journey. It is an important part of living the Christian life, and so it should be something you do every day. You don't really get through the Bible; rather, by regularly reading the Bible, you allow it to get through you. St. Poemen illustrates this point:
“The nature of water is soft, that of the stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone. So it is with the word of God; it is soft and our heart is hard, but the man who hears the word of God often, opens his heart to the fear of God” (Benedicta Ward, translator, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Alphabetical Collection (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975, 1984 revised edition), p. 192f.).
No matter how many times we may have read through the Bible, we need to continue to read it, because we need it to constantly soften our hearts, and open ourselves up to God's grace. I have been reading the Bible regularly since I was a boy, and I still learn new things every time I read it. I am also reminded of things that I have forgotten, that I needed to be reminded of. And I don't doubt that this will continue to be true until my last breath.

It is helpful to read something from both the Old and the New Testaments. I suggest a system for doing so in "A Simple Approach to Reading the Entire Bible," but if you simply read one chapter a day from the Old Testament, and one from the New, this would provide for some balance in your reading. Some part of the Old Testament can be especially difficult, and so reading that along with portions from the New Testament can keep you from getting bogged down.

Reading the Scriptures in Accordance with the Fathers

According to Canon 19 of the 6th Ecumenical Council, we are told that the Scriptures must be interpreted in a way that does not deviate from the teachings of the Fathers. When converts are received from other Christian group, they are asked (among many other things):
Dost thou acknowledge that the Holy Scriptures must be accepted and interpreted in accordance with the belief which hath been handed down by the Holy Fathers, and which the Holy Orthodox Church, our Mother, hath always held and still doth hold?
The answer the convert is to give is: "I do." But how do we practically go about doing that?

There are many commentaries on Scripture from the Fathers. I have gotten my hands on most of what is currently available in English, but the average person probably could not afford to gather such a collection, and reading through them is a massive undertaking unto itself. But even with all of those commentaries, there are many passages of Scripture for which there is no patristic commentary at all. So what do you do when you're reading the Bible, and you don't have patristic commentary to explain what you are reading to you?

St. Augustine wrote "On Christian Doctrine" in order to teach people how to properly read Scripture, but he has an interesting comment about someone who might not get it right. First he explains what the purpose of the Scriptures is for us to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, and then says:
"Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought. If, on the other hand, a man draws a meaning from them that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception. For there is involved in deception the intention to say what is false; and we find plenty of people who intend to deceive, but nobody who wishes to be deceived. Since, then, the man who knows practices deceit, and the ignorant man is practiced upon, it is quite clear that in any particular case the man who is deceived is a better man than he who deceives, seeing that it is better to suffer than to commit injustice. Now every man who lies commits an injustice; and if any man thinks that a lie is ever useful, he must think that injustice is sometimes useful. For no liar keeps faith in the matter about which he lies. He wishes, of course, that the man to whom he lies should place confidence in him; and yet he betrays his confidence by lying to him.  Now every man who breaks faith is unjust. Either, then, injustice is sometimes useful (which is impossible), or a lie is never useful. Whoever takes another meaning out of Scripture than the writer intended, goes astray, but not through any falsehood in Scripture. Nevertheless, as I was going to say, if his mistaken interpretation tends to build up love, which is the end of the commandment, he goes astray in much the same way as a man who by mistake quits the high road, but yet reaches through the fields the same place to which the road leads. He is to be corrected, however, and to be shown how much better it is not to quit the straight road, lest, if he get into a habit of going astray, he may sometimes take cross roads, or even go in the wrong direction altogether" (On Christian Doctrine 1:36).
We learn what it means to love God and our neighbor in the teachings of the Church. If we interpret the Scriptures in accordance with the teachings of the Church, we may get some things wrong, but we will never be too far off track.

Because we may not understanding something in Scripture we should of course always be open to being corrected by the Church. If we have questions about something, there are many people in the Church we can ask for guidance. But we should not allow the fear of our misunderstanding something in Scripture to prevent us from trying to understand it.

There are many sources we can turn to to help us better understand the Scriptures. There are books like Johanna Manley's "The Bible and the Holy Fathers," which provide some commentary on the passages of Scripture that are appointed to be read liturgically. All of St. John Chrysostom's commentaries on the books of the New Testament are available online, as are many other Patristic commentaries. So I would encourage you to make use of what is available, and try to get you hands on useful resources, but as long as you continue to try to understand the Orthodox Faith properly, you will be able to read the Scriptures with benefit, and will keep from getting too far off track in how you understand it.

Continued in Part 3: In Context

For more Information:

A Simple Approach to Reading the Entire Bible

A Guide to Biblical Reference Texts

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