My seminary has Holy Trinity Monastery’s (of what jurisdiction I do not know) Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament, five-star-reviewed on Amazon (a lone dissenter gave only four stars), and I decided in prayer to read the commentary on the Book of Revelation, which was translated by Fr. Seraphim and published by his St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood.
It helped, in part, to help me see why Fr. Seraphim is so respected in some quarters, and it does not strike me, as do other translations from the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, as being laced with an occult dimension or TMI that monks should normally flee from exposing to laity. It was, overall, a good and lucid translation of a classic commentary, but… I’m a little bit “not surprised” that the translation of Vladyka’s commentary on Revelation was the one translation that appears to be Fr. Seraphim’s doing. It has certain fingerprints. And at risk of irony as someone who dipped into the beginning of the commentary and then honed in on Revelation, it might gently be pointed out that Revelation is the one book of the New Testament that is intentionally not read in Orthodox services.
Among the positive points that may be mentioned, in a text that Fr. Seraphim chose to translate and that bears the Brotherhood’s imprint, are that Revelation needs to be interpreted with extreme caution, and that responsible interpretation is layered. For instance, without any pretension of a single, exhaustive exegesis, he notes,
9:7-10 And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared unto battle; and their faces were as the faces of men. And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions. And they had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men five months.
This description of the monstrous locusts causes some commentators to think that these locusts are nothing else than an allegorical description of human passions. Each of such passions, when it reaches a certain limit, has all the signs of these monstrous locusts. In describing the coming day of the Lord, the holy prophet Joel describes also the appearance before it of destroyers who in part remind one of these locusts.
I suppose that by these locusts one should likely understand the evil demons who have prepared themselves for battle with us, and as signs of victory, wear crowns when we submit to them as having received an evil victory through pleasure. The hair of women [in cultures where women covered their hairs, out of modesty—CJSH] testifies of the demons’ love of pleasure and arousal to fornication; the teeth of lions indicate their hardheartedness; their tails, which are likened to those of scorpions indicate the consequences of sins, which produce the death of the soul, for sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death (Jas 1:15). (St. Andrew, Chapter 26)
But then he goes on:
Contemporary commentators, not without a certain reasonableness, find a kinship of these locusts with airplanes and their bombing attack.
This notes a similarity with admitted caution; Fr. Seraphim’s translation earlier quotes the reference to hail, and earlier says, without such restraint, “Does this not refer to an aerial bombardment with its destructive and incendiary bombs,” and follows with “Some people see also in this frightful mounted army tanks which spurt forth fire.”
What is at issue here? It has been said, “Nothing is as dated as the future.” And the text, should future scholars wish to date it, could date this text fairly closely by what technology it sees and what it has no hint of.
There is a counterbalance to “Nothing is as dated as the future.” Things fade in. Prophecy collapses time without sharply distinguishing similar events that occur at different period, and when oca.org/saints, before the prophecies of St. Nilus, the party that posted St. Nilus’s story wrote:
Saint Nilus has left a remarkably accurate prophecy concerning the state of the Church in the mid-twentieth century, and a description of the people of that time. Among the inventions he predicted are the telephone, airplane, and submarine. He also warned that people’s minds would be clouded by carnal passions, “and dishonor and lawlessness will grow stronger.” Men would not be distinguishable from women because of their “shamelessness of dress and style of hair.” Saint Nilus lamented that Christian pastors, bishops and priests, would become vain men, and that the morals and traditions of the Church would change. Few pious and God-fearing pastors would remain, and many people would stray from the right path because no one would instruct them.
The person who assessed the text as referring to the mid-twentieth century was in fact not quoting a timeline given by St. Nilus but giving a gloss by the presumably mid-twentieth century author of his life, and St. Nilus did not in fact give any timeline or date that my historical sensitivities could recognize. I have read his prophecies, the real ones that tell what the wording of the Mark of the Beast will be, a point I have never seen on the urban legend channel. But things are fading in. The original life posted referred to the “radio,” not the “telephone.” As far as men being indistinguishable from women, we have far eclipsed the summary of the prophecy above, which has no concept of widespread sex-change attempts. As far as passions go, we now have a sewer’s worth of Internet porn. The prophecy could apply as much to scuba diving even better than submarines, but the oca.org/saints wording has not been changed. The prophecies stated that wisdom would be found that would let men speak in one place and be heard across the world, a prediction which has faded in in the radio, then also the telephone, then also the Zoom chat. What next? Who knows if haptics might make a “remote touch” that offers some ghastly and obscene parody of a mother touching her baby, remotely and from a phone? As far as the morals and tradition of the Church, contraception has transformed into being broadly seen as a legitimate option to Orthodox. Examples could easily be multiplied, but I think it would be better to recognize the singularity we live in, a singularity that is unfolding on many dimensions (the gender rainbow, the river of blood from black-on-black murders ever since “Black Lives Matter” took to the forefront (could we please reverse course and go for “All Black Lives Matter?”), a singularity following a century that with artists like Picasso radically transforming artistic conventions that a historian should regard as being like an eyeblink. Now changes are continuing to roll out, at an accelerating pace in a singularity. In a matter of weeks, models who were not half-starved began to be rolled out. Politically correct pictures of people usually did not show white people alone; they included a person of color. Now a further installment has been made: some pictures have a woman wearing Muslim hajibs, and increasingly common are wheelchairs to include people with disabilities (please note that most disabilities, including mine, do not have people using a wheelchair). And dominoes are falling: not only BLM, which seems to always and only be in reference to blacks needlessly killed by white police and by white police alone, but Islam’s surge (with atheislam in which the West accepts under an iron yoke what it spurned under a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light), the cyber-quarantine, vaccines that will be socially mandated, transgender being in truth a prominent and well-integrated addition to what was once really just mostly “LBG”, with schoolchildren being told “There’s no right or wrong age to fall in love” (one archpriest called a spade a spade and said, “Putting the P in LGBTQP+”), and so on.
(“Singularity” is intended by analogy to what the term means in physics. Gravity in physics has been compared to weighted balls moving on a level, stretched-out rubber sheet. Heavier balls stretch the fabric more than light balls, and they tend to draw each other in. They stretch the fabric, but don’t break it. A black hole is when something stretches the fabric so singularly that the fabric of space folds in on itself, and you get potential wormholes etc. The difference between regular gravity and a singularity is loosely the difference between stretching the sheet by your weight on the one hand, and on the other hand ripping a hole in it.)
Furthermore, if I may offer what may seem an overly fine distinction, I think that matching up current events to details of Revelation is best avoided, but understanding that we are in a singularity and understanding that similarity may have value.
I had conversations with an adviser who really should have known better, who asked me, in asking if I was meeting basic duty, “Do you make allowances for greater ignorance in the past?” I answered:
I don’t make allowances for greater ignorance in the past. Allowances for different ignorance in the past are more negotiable. And I would quote General Omar Bradley: “We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.”
I don’t want to give an uncritical endorsement of the “Nature Connection” movement, as it seemed as I went through the eight shields thinking always, “This is overall good but I’m holding my nose at the spot we are in now,” and eventually “I don’t need Coyote as a totem.”
However, any serious attempt to hear out nature connection, even as literature one does not give more than a willing suspension of disbelief, is that we have lost things that were known to past generations, and that surviving hunter-gatherers have an incredible richness in sensitivity to their surroundings and layers of patterns suburbanites can miss. And the advisor, in my opinion, had read too many ancient texts, and in the original, to have legitimate innocence in seeing the difference in knowledge as ancient Aramaic texts fail to reflect the victories of the Scientific Revolution.
I might briefly comment on the singularity we are in:
Recorded history does not really date past ten thousand years. The non-Neanderthal subspecies all living humans belong to dates back to perhaps forty times that length, and our genus dates back to two or four hundred times that length. Less than one percent of all humans who have ever lived have ever seen a written/printed word, let alone mass produced technology even on par with a pencil or knife.
I might comment briefly, if perhaps only to Jerry Root and other C.S. Lewis fans, that C.S. Lewis raised an objection to standard evolution that was a form of what is called self-referential incoherence. If evolution is true, then it explains why we have good enough brains to find food, avoid being eaten, and produce offspring… but not why we would have good enough brains to put together a true theory of evolution. Knowledge of evolution is no more than a biochemical reaction as romantic love is no more than a biochemical reaction, and it reflects philosophical confusion of a major order to say it is even theoretically possible that our theory of evolution could be true. This has been answered in part with a suggestion that evolution would select for brains that could find things that were true, but if that is the case, assuming evolution is true, it is an extremely parochial elite, less than 2% of the age of civilization and less than .0001% of the time people have been around that evolution has given anyone the kind of brains that evolution selects for. In my opinion that response to an objection shows serious philosophical muddle. And, incidentally, I believe that Fr. Seraphim was right, at least as regards popular culture, that evolution is not doing the job of a scientific theory, but the job of philosophy that allows atheism to account for what over 99% of humans have ever lived have seen as the work of some form of spirit.
Now before getting back to Fr. Seraphim, let me get back to my advisor. Elsewhere in our discussion, he hypothetically mentioned ancient prophecies of “mushroom clouds” that would “flatten cities,” and benighted ancients failing to understand a reference to nuclear warfare that is neither particularly like toadstools in a forest, nor something that would make a smooth, level surface out of a city. I think I thought of, but did not mention, a suggestion that “mushroom clouds” are not the only way an ancient prophecy could describe global thermonuclear war; “And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places” (Rev 6:14) could be read as a surprisingly straightforward ancient prophetic description of conditions of nuclear war.
And there are other comparisons that could be drawn. I intentionally don’t want to belabor where tempting comparisons could be made, but the Internet and the whole locus of electronic technology could be described as fire from Heaven in “great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men,” (Rev 13:13), and “With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication.” (Rev. 17:5), where a basic utility, a socially mandated technology, includes an endless sewer of porn if you want it, and really at least soft porn if you try to research innocent topics on YouTube. There is more I could belabor: SecondLife fascinates the public and has been called SecondWife, with stern moralists saying, “Fornicate using your OWN genitals!” And about Babylon being thrown into the sea, I believe that it will be at some point as easy to take down any technological Babylon as start a nuclear war, and that inadvertently. Read The Damned Backswing as written in fifteen feet high blinking neon about our stack of technologies.
(Fr. Seraphim quotes, “If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add to him the plagues which are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of this prophecy, God shall take away his share in the tree of life,” and the commentary underscores that Revelation ends with “a strict warning not to distort the words of the prophecy under threat of the application of the plagues that are written in this book.” I might suggest that it may be, if not exactly clear-cut wrong, at least in a gray area to add exact historical correspondences where fire and hail simply refer to aerial bombardment—or fire from Heaven (some people believe Elijah’s “fire from Heaven” as being lightning), simply as neither more nor less than the lightning-like electricity that powers electronic gadgets. There are some points of contact, but it is not clear to me that it is right to make such a simple and complete identification of one historic detail with one text in Revelation.)
However, I present these to illustrate a temptation. Nothing is as dated as the future. An archaeologist of the future, if the Lord tarries (a point on which I am unclear and perhaps must be unclear), who found this article as somehow surviving the Digital Dark Ages and/or World War III, could closely date this article based on the major technologies I call out and the major technologies I don’t show a hint of imagining. I wrote, Recognize that it will be easier to get the people out of the cyber-quarantine than to get the cyber-quarantine, our new home, out of the people. We have already with our Zoom chats laid practical foundations for George Orwell’s 1984.
(And I might briefly state that I believe the examples I gave, if there is far future history to assess this article, will be much more dated than Einstein’s simple prediction: “I do not know what weapons World War III will be fought with, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” That kind of statement tells scarcely less but is far less dated.)
And I would like to state now a cardinal point:
I would be very careful about recognizing prophecies fulfilled in Revelation, but I would be much faster to observe ways in which we live within a singularity, and that is a singularity on par with what is called a singularity in modern physics when a black hole is formed.
There was a classic set of AT&T ads, dated to 1993, with the classic AT&T Death Star logo, looking like a dark vintage science fiction movie:
And on a humor newsgroup someone followed up with:
Have you ever received an automated sales pitch,
while you were still in your pajamas?
Have you ever had thousands of calls all over
the world charged to your stolen account number?
Have you ever had your paycheck deleted
by faceless intruders from across the globe?
Have you ever had an employer know more about your
whereabouts and activities than your spouse?
Have you ever been snuffed to dust by a
satellite laser while lying on the beach?________
| YOU |
| WILL |
And the company that will bring this to you
There was one thing that AT&T wasn’t straightforward about: No technology is permanently exotic.
The AT&T commercial portrays a world of wonder. However, “YOU WILL” is not especially wondrous to those of us living in that dark science fiction reality. We do not wonder at electronic toll collection; we do not wonder at being able to access webpages on another continent. No technology is permanently exotic, and we can obtain momentary relief by upgrading to the newest and hottest gadget, but then, alcoholics can obtain momentary relief of the living Hell of alcoholism by getting really drunk. The short-term fix does not work in the long run, and is in fact counterproductive. As far as (anti-)social media go, we have delivered the equivalent of a tofu virtual chicken in every pot. And tofu does not just feel and taste gross; it is nutritionally an absolutely terrible surrogate for real, honest animal protein. And even the parody left out one point in retrospect: “Have you ever been drained at compulsively checking your phone at least a hundred times a day? YOU WILL, and the companies that will bring it to you include AT&✁✆✇.*T.”
A Bookshelf for Our Day
Let me give a few titles that I would strongly recommend reading, preferably in paper (kids, go ask your great-grandparents):
- Francis Oakley, The Medieval Experience: Foundations of Western Cultural Singularity
I’m going to open this list with a dud. I am, or at least have been, a medievalist at heart; one of my books is a take on Arthurian legend, The Sign of the Grail, although I have since done something that is overdue. I have backed away from Arthurian legend as however enchanting it may seem if you don’t know it, not being particularly edifying or profitable to explore.
It has been said that the singularity we live in now is the fruit of what developed in the Middle Ages. However, The Medieval Experience left me completely underwhelmed, and furthermore the more background knowledge I had of an area, the more hollow a failure to walk in another person’s shoes the text appeared to be.
In the last real chapter, about precursors to feminism, the author quotes a non-medievalist Ibsen in words I wish to repeat in gory detail:
HELMER: To forsake your home, your husband, and your children! And you don’t consider what the world will say.
NORA: I can pay no heed to that. I only know that I must do it.
HELMER: This is monstrous! Can you forsake your holiest duties in this way?
NORA: What do you consider my holiest duties?
HELMER: Do I need to tell you that? Your duties to your husband and your children.
NORA: I have other duties equally sacred.
HELMER: Impossible! What duties do you mean?
NORA: My duties towards myself.
HELMER: Before all else you are a wife and a mother.
NORA: That I no longer believe. I believe that before all else I am a human being, just as much as you are—or at least that I should try to become one.
It is a sign of feminism’s hegemony that at least some women, despite every effort to want a career, ask “What is wrong with me?” because after all feminist direction they have received, they still can’t dislodge a fundamental desire to get married and have kids. This last major chapter in The Medieval Experience falls squarely in the “She shall be saved from childbearing” camp, and all accounts of the good and/or improving state of women in the Middle Ages describes precursors to feminism’s desire that a woman not be a homemaker. It doesn’t just say that a woman should have other options besides being homemakers; it is that precursors to the good estate of women are always in terms of dislodging women from the role of wife and mother no matter how much women should want to be homemakers. And on this count, not a word of the book’s account of proto-feminist tendencies shows the slightest acknowledgment and respect for some women wanting to be wives and mothers.
This book represents to me a missed opportunity. And for a book copyrighted in 1974, it doesn’t seem to show the empathic understanding for today’s singularity that it might, alongside failing to walk in a medieval mom’s shoes. The original copyright year is the same year as Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, and Mander’s title remains salient several decades later and after profound increases in technology, but The Medieval Experience is as a whole forgettable and gives remarkably little insight into the medieval experience as foundations of Western cultural singularity.
C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength
This book is a little bit more of a near miss.
I do not count it as a strike against this book that it takes some effort to appreciate; I am more than willing to recommend a book that will challenge its readers. But nonetheless, I see one or two major strikes against the book. Quite simply, it leads the reader to covet magic and many of its most tantalizing passages tantalize with magic from Atlantis. Furthermore, the character of Merlin is singularly riveting. One definition that has been used to describe the difference between a flat and a rounded character is, “A rounded character believably surprises the reader.” Merlin comes awfully close to delivering nothing but believable surprises. And even if Ransom sharply limits Merlin’s initiative, Merlin’s presence is a problem. And I say that as someone who bore the nickname “Merlin” in high school.
However, this book is valuable in offering a sort of literary “YOU WILL” commercials, which admittedly did not portray how we are glued to mobile devices. The heroes are a delight to read about; the villains are more of a chore to read about, and the banality of evil comes through loud and clear. Furthermore, it is a description of a singularity, and on that point it is the closest work of fiction I know to a fictionalized telling of the singularity we are in.
On that score, That Hideous Strength is well worth the effort to appreciate.
A couple of comments about the author of this book. First, he is an important figure in the history of English-speaking Orthodoxy and did major work rendering the Philokalia in English. Second, he is a hypocrite and an old rogue. He has blasted the Western musical tradition, which an Orthodox might legitimately do, but one friend came to visit him and found him blasting out Wagner’s opera, and that’s Wagner’s opera as in “Wagner’s opera is not as bad as it sounds.” I would also comment on how he writes.
The Rape of Man and Nature deals in caricatures and not the written equivalent of photorealism. However, this has usefulness if it is taken as caricatures and not a literal account of facts. It is a finding in psychology that people recognize someone more readily from a caricature than from a photograph, and the caricature artist’s job is to take the most striking and salient features in e.g. someone’s face, and then portray them in exaggeration that yields a striking clarity. And if Sherrard is a caricature artist in The Rape of Man and Nature, he is an excellent caricature artist.
This book really is a close “near miss,” and I would readily recommend it for people who want a little bit of a feel of what was lost in the Scientific Revolution, and of what developments contributing to our ongoing singularity lost alongside scientific and technical gains.
Jean-Claude Larchet, The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul
I’ve mentioned other titles as near misses. This one doesn’t just score a three point basket; it is nothing but net. (In more ways than one.)
I’m not going to try to list everything that is worth reading in this title. Buy it and read it yesterday.
C.J.S. Hayward, The Luddite’s Guide to Technology
I’m not going to write at length about why I believe my work is relevant, but my suspicion is that this book and not the overlapping The Best of Jonathan’s Corner will be my most lasting contribution, if (of course) the Lord tarries.
At the time of its writing, it has two stars on Amazon, two reviews, and no customer ratings. I would ask the interested reader to read what the Midwest Book Review has to say about it.
Looking back at C.S. Lewis
“These days of final apostasy” is not a new phrase; St. John Chrysostom in fact said that the world was breaking apart and coming to an end, but while antiquity ended, the world has continued.
The world has continued, and C.S. Lewis, on the eve of World War II, famously addressed students, “Life has never been normal. Humanity has always been on a precipice,” although it may be that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night because the end of the world has been so insistently predicted over the ages that no one takes the message seriously.
I think it is worth understanding to what extent we live in a singularity, and we have multiple things that could be apocalyptic events: apart from the obvious threat of global thermonuclear war in a world where each city and each major university has a hydrogen bomb aimed at it, the Internet could collapse like an increasingly brittle house of cards, and take the economy down with it. Or things could continue to change and new societal vulnerabilities could develop. The pace of change has been accelerating, and it might well continue accelerating until there is a step that is sui generis, on par with C.S. Lewis in the nonfiction fraternal twin to That Hideous Strength: The Abolition of Man, in which Lewis describes the final step in “man’s victory over nature:”
The wresting of powers from Nature is also the surrendering of things to Nature…
Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car…
Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man. Every victory we seemed to win has led us, step by step, to this conclusion. All Nature’s apparent reverses have been but tactical withdrawals. We thought we were beating her back when she was luring us on. What looked to us like hands held up in surrender was really the opening of arms to enfold us for ever.
I do not know how the world will end, or whether the apocalypse will turn out to be anything like any of the possibilities I mentioned. There has already passed a moment when a nuclear power ordered a military officer to launch global thermonuclear war. That was during the Cuban missile crisis, and all of us are alive today only in the wake of a soldier who refused to obey an unconditional order. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ says, “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?” God provided a way out of global thermonuclear war then, and he may shelter us, at least for a time, from a meltdown of the Internet. We live and die as God allows, and he may sustain us still. He may give us more to repent. Since Christ’s First Coming, his Second Coming has always been imminent, and part of what I omitted from C.S. Lewis’s passage above is a reality that has not literally been fulfilled even when That Hideous Strength‘s Pragmatometer is live in what is fed to us by the Internet:
The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself.
It is my own opinion that “a perfect applied psychology” is by definition a pipe dream, a materialist’s explanation of spiritual phenomena such as is discussed in How to Think About Psychology: An Orthodox Look at a Secular Religion. But it is possible that Nature’s final conquest of Man as described above will come without needing all-powerful eugenics, prenatal conditioning, or a perfect applied psychology. Pipe dreams have already become real. And one world government is an increasingly real possibility on more grounds than technology.
I have begun with an Orthodox Fr. Seraphim of Plantina and ended with a Protestant C.S. Lewis. The turn is not expected of an Orthodox author, but I have generally had an easier time with C.S. Lewis fans than those of Fr. Seraphim.
All the same, I hope to have shed some light in the process, and introduced a useful distinction between donning X-Ray goggles that let you infallibly identify historic details cryptically referred to by the details of Revelation, and recognizing and understanding that we live in a singularity very different from that of over 99.9% of humans who have ever lived.