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Theory as a disease of the modern world

1 June 2016

Sergei Chapnin, an Orthodox journalist in Moscow, sent me three questions related to the Pan-Orthodox Council being held next month. I think he is collecting responses from quite a number of people, and I think he hopes to collate and publish them on the web. Here are my responses:

1) What trends (both positive and negative), in your opinion, determine the life of the Orthodox Church on your local level (parish, diocese) and worldwide?

The power of the media in shaping people’s worldview means that they often fail to use Orthodox criteria in evaluating things that are happening in the world around them. Locally, Orthodox are a small minority, so this is even more significant. The Orthodox Church is seen as just one of 10000 different Christian sects, and it is very difficult to develop an Orthodox fronima.

2) What is the practical need for cooperation between the local Churches? How important for you personally is this problem and why?

For us in Southern Africa one of the things we lack is monasticism. It would be very good if local Orthodox Churches with a strong monastic life could help us by sending some monks to help establish it here. I would like to see a monastery with monks from one each of several different countries — one Greek, one Russian, one Romanian, one American, so that they would be forced to communicate in English and help to develop an indigenous South African monasticism with local people.

3) What hopes do you have for the forthcoming Pan-Orthodox Council? (Will it become a significant event for the whole Church, or an event primarily for the church administration, etc,?)

One hope I have is that it will recognise other minsistries than ordained clergy (bishops, priests and deacons). These are important, but we also need evangelists, catechists, lay pastors and teachers. In the past the church had ways of recognising these, and while there should be scope for local variations, the council could lay down general guidelines.

In this post I’ll mainly be discussing the first of these — what are the things that shape our worldview, our mindset, our frame of reference, our outlook on life? Apart from Sergei Chapnin’s questions, several other things have happened recently that have made me think about these a lot.

One of the things that made me think about it was this article Gary Saul Morson on Crime and Punishment at 150.:

We wonder how Raskolnikov manages to hold such contradictory positions. Perhaps, as he surmises, he simply can’t shake the “dead weight of instinct” inculcated by religion in childhood. Or maybe his extreme sensitivity to suffering when he is powerless to alleviate it makes a doctrine denying evil’s existence attractive. From extreme moralism to absolute nihilism is but a step.

In my answer to Sergei Chapnin, I had South Africa in mind, where Orthodox Christians are a tiny minority. Dostoevsky was writing in 19th-century Russia, where Orthodoxy was the religion of the majority, and was highly visible, but had little influence on the thinking of the intelligentsia, most of whom self-consciously rejected it. Well, when I say it had little influence, it had quite a lot of negative influence, in that the rejection was self-conscious. People had to be aware of it to reject it.

In South Africa there is barely any awareness. A couple of months ago an airliner was hijacked in Egypt, and it took several days for the South African media to twig that the Orthodox bishop of Johannesburg was aboard the plane, as well as the priest of a fairly prominent parish in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg who had just been made a bishop. The fact that he had been made a bishop didn’t rate a mention in the news until several days after the plane had been hijacked.

Go back 10-12 years earlier, when the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria was killed in an air crash. That barely rated a mention in the South African media, even though earlier in his career the Pope had been parish priest of that same Johannesburg parish, whereas every time the Pope of Rome sneezed there were articles in the mainstream media speculating about his health.

DostoevskySo Orthodoxy doesn’t really register on the media’s radar in South Africa, and Orthodox Christians are exposed to just as many theories and social currents and worldviews as Dostoevsky and his protagonist Raskolnikov in Crime and punishment.

There are many sources of such influence — from our parents, teachers and friends at school, books we read, films we see, watching TV, social media “influencers”, and so on.

When I read the article on Crime and punishment one of the first things that came to mind was Tony Blair. In the book, the prominent mass-murdering politician is Napoleon, whose activities were still within living memory. In our day when we think of warmongering politicians one of the first people who comes to mind is Tony Blair. See this article  — Most British people say they ‘will never forgive’ Tony Blair:

More than half the public say they can “never forgive” Tony Blair for embroiling the UK in the war in Iraq.

A survey carried out by the pollsters YouGov ahead of the publication of the Chilcot Report at the start of July found only 8 per cent think he did nothing wrong.

Yet when Tony Blair wanted war, it was the media that egged him on, and drummed up public support for the three major wars he participated in — Yugoslavia 1999, Afghanistan 2002, and Iraq 2003-?

On my other blog I recently wrote about the media manufacturing news rather than reporting it, and though this goes back a long way, it seems to have been getting worse recently. Nearly fifty years ago a group of academic researchers made a case study of media reporting. They chose an event that had been planned long in advance, and studied how the media handled it, before, during and after. The event was a protest demonstration against the Vietnam War, with a march to the American Embassy in London. The researchers tracked two TV stations and four newspapers, how they prepared to report the event, and how they actually reported it. The findings were published in a book called Demonstrations and communication: a case study, in which the authors analysed the way in which the news media determined the quality of the event and then were compelled to find incidents to fulfil their prophecies.

When it comes to advertising, the message is even stronger. Advertising provides role models. The role models depict what  the media assume people want to be, or what the media  think people ought to be — good consumers. Take the time to look at some TV ads some time, from the point of view of what they are presenting as role models. Then compare them with Christian saints. What are the similarities and what are the differences. Is there any overlap at all?

BlessedSome Christians try to mitigate this bombardment of one-sided propaganda by posting graphical illustrations with sayings of the saints on social media. It is not my intention to belittle their efforts, but I wonder how effective this is when people cannot see living examples in monasteries. Hence my answer to Sergei Chapnin’s second question above, about the need for countries with a flourishing monastic life to help those who do not have such a thing.

I was once told by a monk of Mount Athos that more people go to hell from monasteries than from anywhere else in the world. It is so easy for a monk to lose his (or her) nipsis (watchfulness).

But monks in monasteries at least know what to watch for.

At the moment we in South Africa are being bombarded with rival TV ads for Jamieson’s whiskey and Hennesey brandy.  One ad presents the role model of a man who is a big success, driving a flashy car, and receiving a prestigious award. The other ad partly deconstructs it: it’s an actor pretending he owns a car, pretending to receive an award, but strip all the props away and what do you have left? Character, that’s what. And, of course, the rival drink. But what constitutes “character” is not explained.

ForgivenessAnd what Orthodox Christians need in this kind of world is the tools to deconstruct these role models and the rest of the propaganda, using rather the lives of the saints to have role models based on Christian values.

Christian role models will show the Christian virtues: modesty, humility, patience and love. The role models in advertisements usually display the contrary. So Christians need the tools to deconstruct these.

But then most advocates of deconstruction also reject  “foundational narratives”, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is just such a foundational narrative. Take that away and what is left? Character, as the whiskey ad days? But what sort of character? Nothing really.

And that brings us back to Dostoevsky and crime and punishment.

Advertisements, and the media generally, deal with popular culture, but the intelligentsia prefer to deal with theories to explain these things. That is perhaps why Gary Saul Morson gives his article on Crime and punishment the sub-title “the disease of theory”. He writes about “theory’s deleterious effects in Crime and Punishment.”

If anyone has read this blog regularly, they will know that I have been quite critical of “critical race theory”. My initial response to it was based almost purely on prejudice. I lived for 47 years of my life under apartheid, which was a race theory. The proponents of critical race theory say that this is different, because it’s a critical race theory, but it’s still a race theory. And they don’t seem too happy when people are critical of it.

Morson’s article goes further, and is critical of theory as theory. And I can go along with that too. I’ve always been a bit suspicious of academics who describe their research as having a “rigid theoretical framework”, and criticise the work of others for lacking such a rigid theoretical framework. It seems to me that they will end up like the news media covering protest demonstrations, and only seeing what they want to see. Fundamentalists, too, have a rigid theoretical framework.

I don’t expect the Pan-Orthodox Council to deconstruct modern culture in one gathering, and I hope they don’t try to come up with a rigid theological framework, but I do hope that they will encourage the Church to work on developing the tools for deconstructing some of the idols of the secular world.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. thesmilingpilgrim permalink
    1 June 2016 9:51 am

    I am going to butcher where that picture is from but Brothers Karamazov (I googled it) awesome book for some theology that is very gritty 🙂

  2. Gordon permalink
    1 June 2016 12:12 pm

    I don’t see the deconstruction of the secular worldview as being the solution . Rather, I see its decomposition resulting from the proclaiming the fundamentals of the Good News of the grace of God which brings salvation. It is only by faith in the divine person and trust in the atoning work of Jesus Christ that paradise can be re-inhabited. Without metamorphosis mankind will remain as spiritual grubs, age after age.

    Thanks for your thoughtful , current and relevant articles.

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