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Societal norms and Christian values

3 July 2015

A recent decision of the US Supreme Court that same-sex marriage was a constitutional right has caused a flurry of activity in social media, with many jubilantly proclaiming it as a notable victory for human rights, and others denouncing it as the greaterst evil of our time. The extremists in both camps seem to manifest the kind of bigotry I have previously discussed here: Are you homophobic? | Notes from underground.

I don’t want to discuss the merits of same-sex marriage here. Suffice it to say that I find myself in disagreement with the extremists on both sides of the issue, and that I am both for it and against it. I’ve already said most of what I want to say about that here The State should get out of the marriage business | Notes from underground and here The theology of Christian marriage | Khanya. If you want to comment on whether you think same-sex marriage is a good thing or an evil thing, please read one or both posts and post your comments there. The issue here is not whether same-sex marriage is a good thing or an evil thing, but rather what the debate on it (and on other issues) reveals about the relationship between societal norms and Christian values.

There is an interesting blog post here Why the gay marriage debate was over in 1950 | Joel J. Miller that suggested that, in the USA at least, the values changed after the Second World War with the advent of the Permissive Society, and that it has just taken until now for the norms to catch up. I don’t agree with everything in that article, but it is an interesting thesis, and it is worth reading.

reichOne of the contributions to the debate on Facebook was a graphic.

I don’t know who Robert Reich is or why his opinion should matter more than anyone else’s, but at least some people on Facebook seem to think it does, so it can be taken as a partial representation of at least one segment of society.

There are three issues there that are covered by three of the ten commandments:

  • Thou shalt not commit adultery
  • Thou shalt not kill
  • Thou shalt not steal

And, according to Robert Reich, at least, sex and human life are trivial. The big issues are economic.

And there I would have to agree. There is still some debate about economic issues, and the Greek debt crisis was making far bigger headlines this week than the same-sex marriage issue, or any of the killing that is going on around the world. So that is a big deal, for the media at least. But on Facebook, many people seemed to be covering their profile pictures with rainbow stripes, none with blue and white stripes. On the other hand, in the media our president is associated far more with “Pay back the money”, with his sexual behaviour being relegated to a single cartoonist depicting him with a shower on his head, the significance of which is probably lost on many (for those who don’t know, he was charged with rape, and said in court that the precatution he took against Aids infection was to have a shower afterwards).

Actually I would also disagree with Joel Miller, when he said that the sexual question started in 1950s. In many countries (though not all) heterosexual adultery was decriminalised long before homosexual adultery and fornication were, though this did not happen everywhere — see here, for example: Decriminalisation of adultery sends condom stocks soaring | Irish Examiner.

But, whichever way you look at it, the idea that the state should enforce Christian sexual morality is long past its sell-by date, and it was never a particularly Christian idea to start with. Even Christians can ‘t seem to agree about it — see here Attitudes on Same-sex Marriage by Religious Affiliation and Denominational Family. As one Orthodox bishop put it 1990-00-00-1-E-R-I-EM05-133ChurchMustBeAsPowerlessAsGod:

It seems to me — and I am firmly convinced of this — that the Church must never speak from a position of strength. It should not be one of the powers that be acting for the State. It should be, let us say, as helpless as God, as helpless as Him who does not force His will on us, who only calls us and reveals the beauty and truth of things, but who does not force them upon us and, like our conscience, prompts us with the truth but leaves us free either to listen to the truth and the beauty or to deny them. It seems to me that the Church must be just like that. If the Church represents some organisation which has power, which can coerce and control events, there always remains the risk that it will want to exert power, and as soon as a Church begins to exert power it loses its deepest essence — God’s love, and the ability to understand those whom it must save, rather than break or reconstruct them.

And, concerning the specific issue of same-sex marriage, I think one of the best comments on the US Supreme Court decision came from the bishops of the Orthodox Church of America.

Concerning killing and economics, Christians are just as inconsistent.

US President Obama publicly deplores killing with guns, but goes on killing with drones. Some Christians who oppose one are in favour of the other. Some of those who oppose aborti0n are in favour of capital punishm,ent and vice versa. All this seems to suggest that that here too, the battle has been lost. For most Christians, values are determi9ned by society’s norms. And some of those who have despaired of making society’s norms conform to Christian values have suggested the Benedict option, a semi-withdrawal from the world into a kind of Christian ghetto, though they seem to be pretty selective about which Christian values they are despairing of imposing.

Empty symbolism -- dark suits and bow ties

Empty symbolism — dark suits and bow ties

Some Christians seem to think that homosexual marriage will destroy the institution of marriage, and the more conspiratorially minded among them have even suggested that it is a deliberate plot to destroy marriage. I think it is rather the other way round: homosexual marriage has become possible because heterosexual marriage has already been thoroughly devalued, so that fewer and fewer heterosexual couples bother to get formally married at all, and even those that do get married often regard it as a meaningless ceremony. In South Africa, marriage was largely destroyed by apartheid, and in many other societies it was also destroyed by easy divorce, or rather, easy divorce was an even earlier sympton of the devaluation of marriage in society.

So I find it hard to share either the heights of jublilation or the depths of despair and dismay that have been manifested by some over same-sex marriage. It looks like regarding the ability to pick up discarded rubbish as a great victory or a great setback for human rights.

Beside the huge injustice of not being able to dress up in dark suits and bow ties and have some legal formulas pronounced things like the murderous wars promoted and financed by powerful elites in some countries which have created millions more refugees, pale into insignificace.

A few days ago I posted a link to this article on Facebook. It got 2 likes and 1 share. Blame the Rich World for the Global Refugee Crisis – Bloomberg Business:

The United Nations reported last week that the number of refugees worldwide is at its highest level in more than a decade. From around 10 million in 2004, the number climbed to move than 14 million last year. That’s putting a considerable burden on a few—overwhelmingly poor—host countries, one that may last decades. The report suggests more than half of the world’s refugees are under the age of 18, which means many will be well into middle age before they exit refugee status. War and political upheaval may create refugees, but it’s time to acknowledge that the global system for dealing with the problem is broken—and that’s in no small part because the industrialized world does so little to help fix it.

Never mind the minor invonveniences suffered by people whose homes have been bombed to rubble and kids who must grow up and spend the rest of their lives in concentration camps, spurned by the rich nations as “suspected asylum seekers”. It is overshadowed by the great victory for human rights when bourgeois westerners can dress in fancy suits and bow ties and have some kind of ceremony.

Refugees -- many created  by the same country congratulating itself on its commitment to human rights by legalising same-sex marriage

Refugees — many created by the same country congratulating itself on its commitment to human rights by legalising same-sex marriage

I may be weird about this, but to me it seems to lack a sense of proportion. The extremists on both sides of the same-sex marriage issue seem far more concerned about that than they do about the plight of the refugees. Of course I’m not in a position to do much about either. Sharing and “liking” things on Facebook is not going to be of much help to refugees. But it does serve as an indication of societal norms and values.

Maybe I’m just prejudiced about this. The only time I ever wore a bow tie was when I was forced to do so as part of a fresher initiation programme at university. It was intended as a symbol of humiliation, to remind one, as the seniors kept saying, that freshers were “lower than shark shit”. So I find it difficult to empathise enough with people whose greatest desire is to dress up in bow ties.

But I find it even more difficult to empathise with people who are desperately seeking pretexts to bomb people’s homes into rubble and force them to live in refugee camps, compared to which legalising same sex marriage seems quite irrelevant.

And then there are the bankers. As The Byrds used to sing in my youth:

As through this life you travel
You meet some funny men
Some rob you with a six gun
And some with a fountain pen.

And so we come back to the economics.

And that is where society’s norms and Christian values both seem to be all over the place. And very few people seem to be talking about the theology of that. They’re too busy trying to work out where to invest their money, if they have any.

People talk about “culture wars”, and I predict that the most significant culture war of the next couple of decades will not be about sexual ethics, but about economics. The UN set Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty by 2015, but it is now 2015 and the Eurozone Troika are not satisfied that 60% of Greek pensioners live in poverty. They want it to be increased to 70% or even 80%. Austerity for all, except the bankers, of course.



This is a blog post.

It is almost the paradigm case of a blog — a web log — with links to some of the web sites I have visited in the last week, and notes of some of my reactions to some of them.

That is something a blog does particularly well. It can’t be done on sites like Facebook or Twitter, which allow you to link to, and possibly comment on one web site at a time.

Blogs also allow you to comment on some of the sites, or all of them, but they are really limited to discussing the particular view expressed in the blog post.

I think this theme of Christian values and society’s norms needs more discussion, and I think a good place to do that is in an exising forum for discussion of Christianity and society.

If you would like to know more about joining that forum (if you are not already a member), or if you would like to say something about this post to me privately and not in a public comment, please use the form below. Anything you type in it will be seen by me only, and not by the public, like things you type in the comment form.

Henry Miller, “Tropic of Cancer”

29 June 2015

Tropic Of CancerTropic Of Cancer by Henry Miller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A couple of months ago I read Youth by J.M. Coetzee about an aspiring South African writer who goes to London. I felt that there was something missing in the book (my review here). I couldn’t quite put a finger on the missing bit, so I thought I would read Tropic of Cancer, which is the story of an aspiring American writer living in Paris.

Since both are semi-autobiographical novels they invite comparison, though perhaps it isn’t doing justice to Miller to compare him with another writer, but it’s the theme that interests me, rather than the individual novels. They were written 30 years apart — Paris in the 1930s, London in the 1960s, and that in itself makes quite a big difference. It is hard to think that the 1960s are further away from us now than the 1930s were then. Perhaps it is because I was alive in the 1960s and thought that the 1930s were impossibly remote. Perhaps it is because WWII intervened, and we are living in a different world.

But with Henry Miller it doesn’t matter much that we are living in a different world, because his books in a sense are timeless. In reading Tropic of Cancer the main thing that seemed different and out of place was that males wore hats, and felt uncomfortable if they went out hatless.

The first book of Miller’s that I read was The Colossus of Maroussi, and it is still the one I like the best. One of the things I liked most about it was his descriptions of places, and there are some good descriptive passages in Tropic of Cancer too.

When it was first published Tropic of Cancer and its companion volume Tropic of Capricorn were banned in most English-speaking countries. Even when they were unbanned in the 1960s they were regarded by many as “dirty” books, because of the explicit sexual descriptions. In the 1980s, of course, no novel was complete without such things — what was forbidden in the 1930s became compulsory 50 years later, so Miller’s book no longer shocks.

People might find it distasteful for other reasons, though; it is sexist, and there is an undertone of racism as well. Some have said that the book is misogynist, but it is not so much mysoginist as sexist. Miller doesn’t hate women, he just doesn’t have much use for them, or rather he just has one use for them — as sexual objects, and that is how he describes them all the way through the book. They are not people, they are genitals with mouths and legs attached.

But most of his descriptions of males were also pretty dehumanising. Perhaps that’s why I like Miller best for his descriptions of places, rather than of people.

View all my reviews

The Place of the Lion in C.S. Lewis’ Fiction

16 June 2015


Here is an interesting essay on C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, and their possible influence on each other. I agree with the author that Aslan in Lewis’s Narnia stories probably owes little to the lion in Charles Williams’s The Place of the Lion. Unlike the author of the essay linked below, I read The Place of the Lion before I read any of the Narnia stories, and my mother, who read it before me, said it reminded her of the nursery rhymne.

The lion and the unicorn were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn all around the town.
Some gave them white bread, and some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake and drummed them out of town.

TarotForceIt helps to see the nusery rhyme in its historical context, which is political. In a sense the beastly archetypes that get loose in Williams’s novel represent abstract powers in this world. For Williams the Lion represents strength, yet in another novel he wrote about the Tarot, and there the strength is not represented so much by the Lion, as by the human being controlling the Lion. And The Place of the Lion ends with Adam reasserting control over the beasts, and the powers they represent.

In the last few decades we have seen people enacting Williams’s novel in everyday life, wanting to release economic powers, for example, from human control, as advocated by the free market ideology.

That all goes beyond this essay, but I think the essay is a very good introduction to these books for those who haven’t read them, and food for thought for those who have

Originally posted on A Pilgrim in Narnia:

The Place of the Lion by Charles WilliamsA couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of being a guest blogger for The Oddest Inkling in a series on Charles Williams’ The Place of the Lion. This was the first Williams book that C.S. Lewis had ever encountered, and it was transformational for him. My question in this blog is what role it played in Lewis’ own fiction writing.

The Place of the Lion in C.S. Lewis’ Fiction

I came to Charles Williams’ The Place of the Lion because of my work in C.S. Lewis. I know that Williams had a great influence upon Lewis, and I am determined to find out how deep that influence really is. Moreover, Lewis discovers the Lion at a key point in his life: his academic career is building with the release of The Allegory of Love (1936) and his continual work on The Personal Heresy (1939) . It is at…

View original 1,645 more words

Orthodox Hallowe’en

6 June 2015

The evening of the Saturday after Pentecost is the Orthodox Hallowe’en, following immediately upon the Leavetaking of Pentecost.

Synaxis of All Saints – Orthodox Church in America:

The Sunday following Pentecost is dedicated to All Saints, both those who are known to us, and those who are known only to God. There have been saints at all times, and they have come from every corner of the earth. They were Apostles, Martyrs, Prophets, Hierarchs, Monastics, and Righteous, yet all were perfected by the same Holy Spirit.

The Descent of the Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to rise above our fallen state and to attain sainthood, thereby fulfilling God’s directive to “be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44, 1 Peter 1:16, etc.). Therefore, it is fitting to commemorate All Saints on the first Sunday after Pentecost.

allsaintsIn the Western Church All Saints Day is always on the same calendar date, November 1st, so Hallowe’en is always the evening before, and it is followed by All Souls Day on November 2nd. In the Orthodox Church the calendar date varies, because Hallowe’en is always on the Saturday after Pentecost. And All Souls Day is always a week before, on the Saturday before Pentecost. Actually the Orthodox Church has more than one All Souls Day — there are several of them, spread through the year.

There are saints commemorated by name on every day throughout the year, but All Saints Day we remember all those, known and unknown, who have lived lives pleasing to God.

Troparion — Tone 4

As with fine porphyry and royal purple,
Your church has been adorned with Your martyrs’ blood shed throughout all the world.
She cries to You, O Christ God:
Send down Your bounties on Your people,
Grant peace to Your habitation, and great mercy to our souls!

Kontakion — Tone 8

The universe offers You the God-bearing martyrs,
As the first fruits of creation, O Lord and Creator.
Through the Theotokos, and their prayers establish Your Church in peace!

More hymns from the Orthodox Hallowe’en Vespers

Tone 6 (from the Pentecostarion) (Having placed all their hope)

The Saviour’s inspired Disciples
became instruments of the Spirit through faith.
They were scattered to the ends of the earth,
sowing the glad tidings of the true faith.
From their divine garden the army of martyrs blossomed in grace.
They became images of Christ’s saving Passion,
enduring every kind of torture, scourging, and fire.//
Now they boldly pray for our souls.

v. (3) For with the Lord there is mercy and with Him is plenteous redemption, and He will deliver Israel from all his iniquities.

The noble martyrs, burning with love of the Lord,
laughed at the fires and were consumed as burning coals.
Through Christ, they burned the withered arrogance of error.
They stilled the roaring of beasts with the voice of their prayers.
Beheaded, they decapitated the demonic hosts.
By the shedding of their own blood they watered the Church with faith.

v. (2) Praise the Lord, all nations! Praise Him, all peoples!

The heroic martyrs wrestled with beasts and were torn by their claws.
They were dismembered, slashed with swords, and shot with arrows;
they were consumed in the flames and pierced with lances.
All this they willingly endured,
for already they saw their unfading crowns, and the glory of Christ,
before Whom they boldly pray for our souls.

v. (1) For His mercy is abundant towards us; and the truth of the Lord endures for ever.

Come, let us praise the heroes of our faith:
Apostles, martyrs, holy priests, and noble women!
They fought for the faith in every part of the earth.
Though born of earth, they were united with the heavenly hosts.
Through their sufferings, they triumphed over evil by the grace of Christ.
As unfading lights, they illumine our hearts,
and with boldness they pray for our souls.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

O divine choir of martyrs,
ye are the pillars of the Church and the fulfillment of the Gospel.
By your deeds ye have fulfilled the Savior’s words.
Ye have closed the gates of hell and defended the Church.
The shedding of your blood has dried up the libations poured out to idols.
Your sacrifice has nourished the body of the faithful.
Standing crowned before God, ye amazed the Angels.
Pray unceasingly to Him that our souls may be saved!

Now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.


See more at MYSTAGOGY: Synaxarion for the Sunday of All Saints

A happy hunting ground for cranks and fanatics

2 June 2015

How did the Internet become a happy hunting ground for cranks and fanatics?

There is a saying that “bad money drives out good”, and the purveyors of crackpot theology are certainly better at marketing their ideas than those whose theology is Orthodox (even small o orthodox). They seem to be especially good at marketing on social media.

For example, I sometimes check this digest of articles mentioned on Twitter that have the #theology hashtag.

HWA3On any given day about 40-50% of the entries are from Herbert W. Armstrong and his offshoots — Plain Truth magazine, Ambassador College, and The World Tomorrow broadcasts, which claim to be today’s and tomorrow’s events as revealed in “Bible prophecy”.

The proportion is far higher than the the number of his actual followers would suggest, and what it means is that his ideas reach and take root in the minds of many people who are not actual followers.

Many people will have a good laugh at The Plain Truth, but they will often remember the ideas in it, perhaps because they had a good laugh.

Zacchaeus3But it is rare to find links to good Orthodox (or even orthodox) theology there. Why? Because people who write (or read) the good stuff often fail to post links to it on Twitter and similar social media sites, or if they do, they forget to add the #theology hashtag. There are good theological blogs like Glory to God for All Things, but they rarely appear in the #theology daily paper. In that case it is also more difficult because the blog posts don’t have a button making it easy to post links on Twitter, so one has to go to a bit of extra effort, but surely the effort is worth making? Just remember to add the hashtags #orthodox and #theology.

My field is missiology, but the daily digest of missiology tweets is often empty, because people forget to use the #missiology hashtag.

The result is that, even though there is a lot of good stuff out there, it is not as widely read as it could be, and the mediocre, crackpot or just plain bad theology gets far more exposure.

Pentecost and mission

31 May 2015

Today is the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Pascha, and the feast has a dual symbolism: the Descent of the Holy Spirit, and the revelation of the Holy Trinity.

pentecost_01Orthodox mission can be said to have begun on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem over nineteen centuries ago and the ikon of the Descent of the Holy Spirit is perhaps the best place to begin the study of Orthodox mission and missiology. It shows the apostles of Jesus gathered in the upper room, sitting in a semi-circle. There is an atmosphere of sober expectancy. “Stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).

In the centre of the semicircle of the apostles is what looks like a window with a rounded top, vertical, though it also appears to be set in the middle of the floor, which one would normally expect to be horizontal. It seems as though the window is open onto a dark night, and in it, facing the viewer, is an old man, a king, holding a white cloth. He is looking into the upper room, but in such a position that he cannot see it, or anyone in it. He is looking directly at the viewer. This is Cosmos, the world (Ouspensky 1987:322, 323, 332).

So the ikon depicts the mission of the church, or rather the church preparing for its mission. It is to go into all the world. And the world is at the centre, the focal point, of the ikon.
Many images, verbal as well as graphic, depict the church surrounded by the world. The world is sometimes hostile, sometimes needy. But it is always “out there” and the church is “in here”. The church, we are told, must “reach out” to the poor, hungry, needy suffering world. But the ikon reverses the perspectives and shows the world inside the upper room. The church does not reach out to the world, because the world is in the middle.

LastBatA children’s novel by C.S. Lewis, The last battle, describes the last battle of the land of Narnia. The powers of evil have taken over the land, and claim to have the creator and ruler of the land, the lion Aslan, in a stable. Those who doubt their right to rule are invited to look in the stable, where they have tethered a donkey dressed in a moth-eaten lion skin. But soon it appears to the would-be rulers that something has gone wrong. Most of those sent into the stable do not come out. The only ones that do come out are the scoffers, who do not believe in Aslan, but when they emerge they are terrified out of their wits. Those who go in fearful, but not willing to betray the land to its oppressors, find that instead of the smelly stable in a forest at night, they are in a brightly lit open country.

“It seems then,” said Tirian, smiling himself, “that the Stable seen from within and the Stable seen from without are two different places.”
“Yes,” said the Lord Digory, “Its inside is bigger than its outside.”
“Yes,” said Queen Lucy, “In our world too, a Stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world” (Lewis 1964:128).

Pentecost-icon-troparion-300x260And so it is with the ikon of Pentecost. The inside of the upper room is bigger than the outside. The disciples of Jesus withdrew into the upper room, and discovered that inside it was bigger than the whole universe. And so the old man, Cosmos, can mean many things. An older and sadder Adam, perhaps, worn out with his dominion over the creation, which itself has become worn out and ravaged by time and man. Cosmos can represent the world in darkness.
And there is the mission of the Church — reaching out by reaching in. Bringing good news to an old and weary earth.
It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and to understand mission it would be better to look at the ikon of Pentecost, and pray before it, than to try to describe it.[1]



Notes & References

[1] Adapted from my doctoral thesis on Orthodox mission methods, chapter 3.

Morning Prayer of the Last Elders of Optina

30 May 2015

Many Orthodox Christians end their morning prayers with the following “Morning Prayer of the Last Elders of Optina”.

O Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquillity. Grant that I may fully surrender myself to Thy holy will.

At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things. Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to Thy holy will.

Grant that I may deal straightforwardly and wisely with every member of my family, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone.

O Lord, grant me the strength to endure the fatigue of the coming day and all the events that take place during it. Direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive and to love.


Optina Monastery (Оптина пустынь — Optina Pustyn) was a monastery in Russia famed for its spiritual elders (Russian: startsi). It was closed by the Bolsheviks, and the monks were scattered. Some were imprisoned, and some were killed. The “news that reached them in the course of the day” was often that some of their brethren had been arrested, tortured, or killed. The monastery has now been reopened and rebuilt. Optina_Pustynia_and_Zhizdra_River's_flood


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