A Wonderful Life

Cover for Where Is God in Suffering and Hard Times?

Peter never imagined that smashing his thumb in a car door would be the best thing to ever happened to him. But suddenly his plans to move in to the dorm were changed, and he waited a long time at the hospital before finally returning to the dorm and moving in.

Peter arrived for the second time well after check-in time, praying to be able to get in. After a few phone calls, a security officer came in, expressed sympathy about his bandaged thumb, and let him up to his room. The family moved his possessions from the car to his room and made his bed in a few minutes, and by the time it was down, the security guard had called the RA, who brought Peter his keys.

It was the wee hours of the morning when Peter looked at his new home for the second time, and tough as Peter was, the pain in his thumb kept him from falling asleep. He was in as much pain as he’d been in for a while.

He awoke when the light was ebbing, and after some preparations set out, wandering until he found the cafeteria. The pain seemed much when he sat down at a table. (It took him a while to find a seat because the cafeteria was crowded.)

A young man said, “Hi, I’m John.” Peter began to extend his hand, then looked at his white bandaged thumb and said, “Excuse me for not shaking your hand. I am Peter.”

A young woman said, “I’m Mary. I saw you earlier and was hoping to see you more.”

Peter wondered about something, then said, “I’ll drink for that,” reached with his right hand, grabbed a glass of soda, and then winced in pain, spilling his drink on the table.

Everybody at the table moved. A couple of people dodged the flow of liquid; others stopped what they were doing, rushing to mop up the spill with napkins. Peter said, “I keep forgetting I need to be careful about my thumb,” smiled, grabbed his glass of milk, and slipped again, spilling milk all over his food.

Peter stopped, sat back, and then laughed for a while. “This is an interesting beginning to my college education.”

Mary said, “I noticed you managed to smash your thumb in a car door without saying any words you regret. What else has happened?”

Peter said, “Nothing great; I had to go to the ER, where I had to wait, before they could do something about my throbbing thumb. I got back at 4:00 AM and couldn’t get to sleep for a long time because I was in so much pain. Then I overslept my alarm and woke up naturally in time for dinner. How about you?”

Mary thought for a second about the people she met. Peter could see the sympathy on her face.

John said, “Wow. That’s nasty.”

Peter said, “I wish we couldn’t feel pain. Have you thought about how nice it would be to live without pain?”

Mary said, “I’d like that.”

John said, “Um…”

Mary said, “What?”

John said, “Actually, there are people who don’t feel pain, and there’s a name for the condition. You’ve heard of it.”

Peter said, “I haven’t heard of that before.”

John said, “Yes you have. It’s called leprosy.”

Peter said, “What do you mean by ‘leprosy’? I thought leprosy was a disease that ravaged the body.”

John said, “It is. But that is only because it destroys the ability to feel pain. The way it works is very simple. We all get little nicks and scratches, and because they hurt, we show extra sensitivity. Our feet start to hurt after a long walk, so without even thinking about it we… shift things a little, and keep anything really bad from happening. That pain you are feeling is your body’s way of asking room to heal so that the smashed thumbnail (or whatever it is) that hurts so terribly now won’t leave you permanently maimed. Back to feet, a leprosy patient will walk exactly the same way and get wounds we’d never even think of for taking a long walk. All the terrible injuries that make leprosy a feared disease happen only because leprosy keeps people from feeling pain.”

Peter looked at his thumb, and his stomach growled.

John said, “I’m full. Let me get a drink for you, and then I’ll help you drink it.”

Mary said, “And I’ll get you some dry food. We’ve already eaten; it must—”

Peter said, “Please, I’ve survived much worse. It’s just a bit of pain.”

John picked up a clump of wet napkins and threatened to throw it at Peter before standing up and walking to get something to drink. Mary followed him.

Peter sat back and just laughed.

John said, “We have some time free after dinner; let’s just wander around campus.”

They left the glass roofed building and began walking around, enjoying the grass and the scenery.

After some wandering, Peter and those he had just met looked at the castle-like Blanchard Hall, each one transported in his imagination to be in a more ancient era, and walked around the campus, looked at a fountain, listened to some music, and looked at a display of a giant mastodon which had died before the end of the last ice age, and whose bones had been unearthed in a nearby excavation. They got lost, but this was not a terrible concern; they were taking in the campus.

Their slow walk was interrupted when John looked at his watch and realized it was time for the “floor fellowship.” and orientation games.

Between orientation games, Peter heard bits of conversation: “This has been a bummer; I’ve gotten two papercuts this week.” “—and then I—” “What instruments do you—” “I’m from France too! Tu viens de Paris?” “Really? You—” Everybody seemed to be chattering, and Peter wished he could be in one of—actually, several of those conversations at once.

Paul’s voice cut in and said, “For this next activity we are going to form a human circle. With your team, stand in a circle, and everybody reach in and grab another hand with each hand. Then hold on tight; when I say, “Go,” you want to untangle yourselves, without letting go. The first team to untangle themselves wins!”

Peter reached in, and found each of his hands clasped in a solid, masculine grip. Then the race began, and people jostled and tried to untangle themselves. This was a laborious process and, one by one, every other group freed itself, while Peter’s group seemed stuck on—someone called and said, “I think we’re knotted!” As people began to thin out, Paul looked with astonishment and saw that they were indeed knotted. “A special prize to them, too, for managing the best tangle!”

“And now, we’ll have a three-legged race! Gather into pairs, and each two of you take a burlap sack. Then—” Paul continued, and with every game, the talk seemed to flow more. When the finale finished, Peter found himself again with John and Mary and heard the conversations flowing around him: “Really? You too?” “But you don’t understand. Hicks have a slower pace of life; we enjoy things without all the things you city dwellers need for entertainment. And we learn resourceful ways to—” “—and only at Wheaton would the administration forbid dancing while requiring the games we just played and—” Then Peter lost himself in a conversation that continued long into the night. He expected to be up at night thinking about all the beloved people he left at home, but Peter was too busy thinking about John’s and Mary’s stories.

The next day Peter woke up his to the hideous sound of his alarm clock, and groggily trudged to the dining hall for coffee, and searched for his advisor.

Peter found the appropriate hallway, wandered around nervously until he found a door with a yellowed plaque that said “Julian Johnson,” knocked once, and pushed the door open. A white-haired man said, “Peter Jones? How are you? Do come in… What can I do for you?”

Peter pulled out a sheet of paper, looked down at it for a moment and said, “I’m sorry I’m late. I need you to write what courses I should take and sign here. Then I can be out of your way.”

The old man sat back, drew a deep breath, and relaxed into a fatherly smile. Peter began to wonder if his advisor was going to say anything at all. Then Prof. Johnson motioned towards an armchair, as rich and luxurious as his own, and then looked as if he remembered something and offered a bowl full of candy. “Sit down, sit down, and make yourself comfortable. May I interest you in candy?” He picked up an engraved metal bowl and held it out while Peter grabbed a few Lifesavers.

Prof. Johnson sat back, silent for a moment, and said, “I’m sorry I’m out of butterscotch; that always seems to disappear. Please sit down, and tell me about yourself. We can get to that form in a minute. One of the priveleges of this job is that I get to meet interesting people. Now, where are you from?”

Peter said, “I’m afraid there’s not much that’s interesting about me. I’m from a small town downstate that doesn’t have anything to distinguish itself. My amusements have been reading, watching the cycle of the year, oh, and running. Not much interesting in that. Now which classes should I take?”

Prof. Johnson sat back and smiled, and Peter became a little less tense. “You run?”

Peter said, “Yes; I was hoping to run on the track this afternoon, after the lecture. I’ve always wanted to run on a real track.”

The old man said, “You know, I used to run myself, before I became an official Old Geezer and my orthopaedist told me my knees couldn’t take it. So I have to content myself with swimming now, which I’ve grown to love. Do you know about the Prairie Path?”

Peter said, “No, what’s that?”

Prof. Johnson said, “Years ago, when I ran, I ran through the areas surrounding the College—there are a lot of beautiful houses. And, just south of the train tracks with the train you can hear now, there’s a path before you even hit the street. You can run, or bike, or walk, on a path covered with fine white gravel, with trees and prairie plants on either side. It’s a lovely view.” He paused, and said, “Any ideas what you want to do after Wheaton?”

Peter said, “No. I don’t even know what I want to major in.”

Prof. Johnson said, “A lot of students don’t know what they want to do. Are you familiar with Career Services? They can help you get an idea of what kinds of things you like to do.”

Peter looked at his watch and said, “It’s chapel time.”

Prof. Johnson said, “Relax. I can write you a note.” Peter began to relax again, and Prof. Johnson continued, “Now you like to read. What do you like to read?”

Peter said, “Newspapers and magazines, and I read this really cool book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Oh, and I like the Bible.”

Prof. Johnson said, “I do too. What do you like about it most?”

“I like the stories in the Old Testament.”

“One general tip: here at Wheaton, we have different kinds of professors—”

Peter said, “Which ones are best?”

Prof. Johnson said, “Different professors are best for different students. Throughout your tenure at Wheaton, ask your friends and learn which professors have teaching styles that you learn well with and mesh well with. Consider taking other courses from a professor you like. Now we have a lot of courses which we think expose you to new things and stretch you—people come back and see that these courses are best. Do you like science?”

“I like it; I especially liked a physics lab.”

Prof. Johnson began to flip through the course catalogue. “Have you had calculus?” Prof. Johnson’s mind wandered over the differences between from the grand, Utopian vision for “calculus” as it was first imagined and how different a conception it had from anything that would be considered “mathematics” today. Or should he go into that? He wavered, and then realized Peter had answered his question. “Ok,” Prof. Johnson said, “the lab physics class unfortunately requires that you’ve had calculus. Would you like to take calculus now? Have you had geometry, algebra, and trigonometry?”

Peter said, “Yes, I did, but I’d like a little break from that now. Maybe I could take calculus next semester.”

“Fair enough. You said you liked to read.”

“Magazines and newspapers.”

“Those things deal with the unfolding human story. I wonder if you’d like to take world civilization now, or a political science course.”

“History, but why study world history? Why can’t I just study U.S. history?”

Prof. Johnson said, “The story of our country is intertwined with that of our world. I think you might find that some of the things in world history are a lot closer to home than you think—and we have some real storytellers in our history department.”

“That sounds interesting. What else?”

“The Theology of Culture class is one many students find enjoyable, and it helps build a foundation for Old and New Testament courses. Would you be interested in taking it for A quad or B quad, the first or second half of the semester?”

“Could I do both?”

“I wish I could say yes, but this course only lasts half the semester. The other half you could take Foundations of Wellness—you could do running as homework!”

“I think I’ll do that first, and then Theology of Culture. That should be new,” Peter said, oblivious to how tightly connected he was to theology and culture. “What else?”

Prof. Johnson said, “We have classes where people read things that a lot of people have found really interesting. Well, that could describe several classes, but I was thinking about Classics of Western Literature or Literature of the Modern World.”

Peter said, “Um… Does Classics of Western Literature cover ancient and medieval literature, and Literature of the Modern World cover literature that isn’t Western? Because if they do, I’m not sure I could connect with it.”

Prof. Johnson relaxed into his seat. “You know, a lot of people think that. But you know what?”

Peter said, “What?”

“There is something human that crosses cultures. That is why the stories have been selected. Stories written long ago, and stories written far away, can have a lot to connect with.”

“Ok. How many more courses should I take?”

“You’re at 11 credits now; you probably want 15. Now you said that you like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’m wondering if you would also like a philosophy course.”

Peter said, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is… I don’t suppose there are any classes that use that. Or are there? I’ve heard Pirsig isn’t given his fair due by philosophers.”

Prof. Johnson said, “If you approach one of our philosophy courses the way you approach Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I think you’ll profit from the encounter. I wonder if our Issues and Worldviews in Philosophy might interest you. I’m a big fan of thinking worldviewishly, and our philosophers have some pretty interesting things to say.”

Peter asked, “What does ‘worldviewishly’ mean?”

Prof. Johnson searched for an appropriate simplification. “It means thinking in terms of worldviews. A worldview is the basic philosophical framework that gives shape to how we view the world. Our philosophers will be able to help you understand the basic issues surrounding worldviews and craft your own Christian worldview. You may find this frees you from the Enlightenment’s secularizing influence—and if you don’t know what the Enlightenment is now, you will learn to understand it, and its problems, and how you can be somewhat freer of its chain.”

Peter said, “Ok. Well, I’ll take those classes. It was good to meet you.”

Prof. Johnson looked at the class schedule and helped Peter choose class sections, then said, “I enjoyed talking with you. Please do take some more candy—put a handful in your pocket or something. I just want to make one more closing comment. I want to see you succeed. Wheaton wants to see you succeed. There are some rough points and problems along the way, and if you bring them to me I can work with them and try to help you. If you want to talk with your RA or our chaplain or someone else, that’s fine, but please… my door is always open. And it was good to meet you too! Goodbye!”

Peter walked out, completely relaxed, and was soon to be energized in a scavenger hunt searching for things from a dog biscuit to a car bumper to a burning sheet of paper not lit by someone in his group, before again relaxing into the “brother-sister floor fellowship” which combined mediocre “7-11 praise songs” (so called because they have “7 words, repeated 11 times”) with the light of another world shining through.

It was not long before the opening activities wound down and Peter began to settle into a regular routine.

Peter and Mary both loved to run, but for different reasons. Peter was training himself for various races; he had not joined track, as he did in high school, but there were other races. Mary ran to feel the sun and wind and rain. And, without any conscious effort, they found themselves running together down the prairie path together, and Peter clumsily learning to match his speed to hers. And, as time passed, they talked, and talked, and talked, and talked, and their runs grew longer.

When the fall break came, they both joined a group going to the northwoods of Wisconsin for a program that was half-work and half-play. And each one wrote a letter home about the other. Then Peter began his theology of culture class, and said, “This is what I want to study.” Mary did not have a favorite class, at least not that she realized, until Peter asked her what her favorite class was and she said, “Literature.”

When Christmas came, they went to their respective homes and spent the break thinking about each other, and they talked about this when they returned. They ended the conversation, or at least they thought they did, and then each hurried back to catch the other and say one more thing, and then the conversation turned out to last much longer, and ended with a kiss.

Valentine’s Day was syrupy. It was trite enough that their more romantically inclined friends groaned, but it did not seem at all trite or syrupy to them. As Peter’s last name was Patrick, he called Mary’s father and prayed that St. Patrick’s Day would be a momentous day for both of them.

Peter and Mary took a slow run to a nearby village, and had dinner at an Irish pub. Amidst the din, they had some hearty laughs. The waitress asked Mary, “Is there anything else that would make this night memorable?” Then Mary saw Peter on his knee, opening a jewelry box with a ring: “I love you, Mary. Will you marry me?”

Mary cried for a good five minutes before she could answer. And when she had answered, they sat in silence, a silence that overpowered the din. Then Mary wiped her eyes and they went outside.

It was cool outside, and the moon was shining brightly. Peter pulled a camera from his pocket, and said, “Stay where you are. Let me back up a bit. And hold your hand up. You look even more beautiful with that ring on your finger.”

Peter’s camera flashed as he took a picture, just as a drunk driver slammed into Mary. The sedan spun into a storefront, and Mary flew up into the air, landed, and broke a beer bottle with her face.

People began to come out, and in a few minutes the police and paramedics arrived. Peter somehow managed to answer the police officers’ questions and to begin kicking himself for being too stunned to act.

When Peter left his room the next day, he looked for Prof. Johnson. Prof. Johnson asked, “May I give you a hug?” and then sat there, simply being with Peter in his pain. When Peter left, Prof. Johnson said, “I’m not just here for academics. I’m here for you.” Peter went to chapel and his classes, feeling a burning rage that almost nothing could pierce. He kept going to the hospital, and watching Mary with casts on both legs and one arm, and many tiny stitches on her face, fluttering on the borders of consciousness. One time Prof. Johnson came to visit, and he said, “I can’t finish my classes.” Prof. Johnson looked at him and said, “The college will give you a full refund.” Peter said, “Do you know of any way I can stay here to be with Mary?” Prof. Johnson said, “You can stay with me. And I believe a position with UPS would let you get some income, doing something physical. The position is open for you.” Prof. Johnson didn’t mention the calls he’d made, and Peter didn’t think about them. He simply said, “Thank you.”

A few days later, Mary began to be weakly conscious. Peter finally asked a nurse, “Why are there so many stitches on her face? Was she cut even more badly than—”

The nurse said, “There are a lot of stitches very close together because the emergency room had a cosmetic surgeon on duty. There will still be a permanent mark on her face, but some of the wound will heal without a scar.”

Mary moved the left half of her mouth in half a smile. Peter said, “That was a kind of cute smile. How come she can smile like that?”

The nurse said, “One of the pieces of broken glass cut a nerve. It is unlikely she’ll ever be able to move part of her face again.”

Peter looked and touched Mary’s hand. “I still think it’s really quite cute.”

Mary looked at him, and then passed out.

Peter spent a long couple of days training and attending to practical details. Then he came back to Mary.

Mary looked at Peter, and said, “It’s a Monday. Don’t you have classes now?”

Peter said, “No.”

Mary said, “Why not?”

Peter said, “I want to be here with you.”

Mary said, “I talked with one of the nurses, and she said that you dropped out of school so you could be with me.

“Is that true?” she said.

Peter said, “I hadn’t really thought about it that way.”

Mary closed her eyes, and when Peter started to leave because he decided she wanted to be left alone, she said, “Stop. Come here.”

Peter came to her bedside and knelt.

Mary said, “Take this ring off my finger.”

Peter said, “Is it hurting you?”

Mary said, “No, and it is the greatest treasure I own. Take it off and take it back.”

Peter looked at her, bewildered. “Do you not want to marry me?”

Mary said, “This may sting me less because I don’t remember our engagement. I don’t remember anything that happened near that time; I have only the stories others, even the nurses, tell me about a man who loves me very much.”

Peter said, “But don’t you love me?”

Mary forced back tears. “Yes, I love you, yes, I love you. And I know that you love me. You are young and strong, and have the love to make a happy marriage. You’ll make some woman a very good husband. I thought that woman would be me.

“But I can see what you will not. You said I was beautiful, and I was. Do you know what my prognosis is? I will probably be able to stand. At least for short periods of time. If I’m fortunate, I may walk. With a walker. I will never be able to run again—Peter, I am nobody, and I have no future. Absolutely nobody. You are young and strong. Go and find a woman who is worth your love.”

Mary and Peter both cried for a long time. Then Peter walked out, and paused in the doorway, crying. He felt torn inside, and then went in to say a couple of things to Mary. He said, “I believe in miracles.”

Then Mary cried, and Peter said something else I’m not going to repeat. Mary said something. Then another conversation began.

The conversation ended with Mary saying, “You’re stupid, Peter. You’re really, really stupid. I love you. I don’t deserve such love. You’re making a mistake. I love you.” Then Peter went to kiss Mary, and as he bent down, he bent his mouth to meet the lips that he still saw as “really quite cute.”

The stress did not stop. The physical therapists, after time, wondered that Mary had so much fight in her. But it stressed her, and Peter did his job without liking it. Mary and Peter quarreled and made up and quarreled and made up. Peter prayed for a miracle when they made up and sometimes when they quarreled. Were this not enough stress, there was an agonizingly long trial—and knowing that the drunk driver was behind bars didn’t make things better. But Mary very slowly learned to walk again. After six months, if Peter helped her, she could walk 100 yards before the pain became too great to continue.

Peter hadn’t been noticing that the stress diminished, but he did become aware of something he couldn’t put his finger on. After a night of struggling, he got up, went to church, and was floored by the Bible reading of, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” and the idea that when you do or do not visit someone in prison, you are visiting or refusing to visit Christ. Peter absently went home, tried to think about other things, made several phone calls, and then forced himself to drive to one and only one prison.

He stopped in the parking lot, almost threw up, and then steeled himself to go inside. He found a man, Jacob, and… Jacob didn’t know who Peter was, but he recognized him as looking familiar. It was an awkward meeting. Then he recognized him as the man whose now wife he had crippled. When Peter left, he vomited and felt like a failure. He talked about it with Mary…

That was the beginning of a friendship. Peter chose to love the man in prison, even if there was no pleasure in it. And that created something deeper than pleasure, something Peter couldn’t explain.

As Peter and Mary were planning the wedding, Mary said, “I want to enter with Peter next to me, no matter what the tradition says. It will be a miracle if I have the strength to stand for the whole wedding, and if I have to lean on someone I want it to be Peter. And I don’t want to sit on a chair; I would rather spend my wedding night wracked by pain than go through my wedding supported by something lifeless!”

When the rehearsal came, Mary stood, and the others winced at the pain in her face. And she stood, and walked, for the entire rehearsal without touching Peter once. Then she said, “I can do it. I can go through the wedding on my own strength,” and collapsed in pain.

At the wedding, she stood next to Peter, walking, her face so radiant with joy that some of the guests did not guess she was in exquisite pain. They walked next to each other, not touching, and Mary slowed down and stopped in the center of the church. Peter looked at her, wondering what Mary was doing.

Then Mary’s arm shot around Peter’s neck, and Peter stood startled for a moment before he placed his arm around her, squeezed her tightly, and they walked together to the altar.

On the honeymoon, Mary told Peter, “You are the only person I need.” This was the greatest bliss either of them had known, and the honeymoon’s glow shined and shined.

Peter and Mary agreed to move somewhere less expensive to settle down, and were too absorbed in their wedded bliss and each other to remember promises they had made earlier, promises to seek a church community for support and friends. And Peter continued working at an unglamorous job, and Mary continued fighting to walk and considered the housework she was capable of doing a badge of honor, and neither of them noticed that the words, “I love you” were spoken ever so slightly less frequently, nor did they the venom and ice creeping into their words.

One night they exploded. What they fought about was not important. What was important was that Peter left, burning with rage. He drove, and drove, until he reached Wheaton, and at daybreak knocked on Prof. Johnson’s door. There was anger in his voice when he asked, “Are you still my friend?”

Prof. Johnson got him something to eat and stayed with him when he fumed with rage, and said, “I don’t care if I’m supposed to be with her, I can’t go back!” Then Prof. Johnson said, “Will you make an agreement with me? I promise you I won’t ever tell you to go back to her, or accept her, or accept what she does, or apologize to her, or forgive her, or in any way be reconciled. But I need you to trust me that I love you and will help you decide what is best to do.”

Peter said, “Yes.”

Prof. Johnson said, “Then stay with me. You need some rest. Take the day to rest. There’s food in the fridge, and I have books and a nice back yard. There’s iced tea in the—excuse me, there’s Coke and 7 Up in the boxes next to the fridge. When I can come back, we can talk.”

Peter relaxed, and he felt better. He told Prof. Johnson. Prof. Johnson said, “That’s excellent. What I’d like you to do next is go in to work, with a lawyer I know. You can tell him what’s going on, and he’ll lead you to a courtroom to observe.”

Peter went away to court the next day, and when he came back he was ashen. He said nothing to Prof. Johnson.

Then, after the next day, he came back looking even more disturbed. “The first day, the lawyer, George, took me into divorce court. I thought I saw the worst that divorce court could get. Until I came back today. It was the same—this sickening scene where two people had become the most bitter enemies. I hope it doesn’t come to this. This was atrocious. It was vile. It was more than vile. It was—”

Prof. Johnson sent him back for a third day. This time Peter said nothing besides, “I think I’ve been making a mistake.”

After the fourth day, Peter said, “Help me! I’ve been making the biggest mistake of my life!”

After a full week had passed, Peter said, “Please, I beg you, don’t send me back there.”

Prof. Johnson sent Peter back to watch a divorce court for one more miserable, excruciating day. Then he said, “Now you can do whatever you want. What do you want to do?”

The conflict between Peter and Mary ended the next day.

Peter went home, begging Mary for forgiveness, and no sooner than he had begun his apology, a thousand things were reflected in Mary’s face and she begged his forgiveness. Then they talked, and debated whether to go back to Wheaton, or stay where they were. Finally Mary said, “I really want to go back to Wheaton.”

Peter began to shyly approach old friends. He later misquoted: “I came crawling with a thimble in the desparate hope that they’d give a few tiny drops of friendship and love. Had I known how they would respond, I would have come running with a bucket!”

Peter and Mary lived together for many years; they had many children and were supported by many friends.

The years passed and Peter and Mary grew into a blissfully happy marriage. Mary came to have increasing health problems as a result of the accident, and those around them were amazed at how their love had transformed the suffering the accident created in both of their lives. At least those who knew them best saw the transformation. There were many others who could only see their happiness as a mirage.

As the years passed, Jacob grew to be a good friend. And when Peter began to be concerned that his wife might be… Jacob had also grown wealthy, very wealthy, and assembled a top-flight legal team (without taking a dime of Peter’s money—over Peter’s protests, of course), to prevent what the doctors would normally do in such a case, given recent shifts in the medical system.

And then Mary’s health grew worse, much worse, and her suffering grew worse with it, and pain medications seemed to be having less and less effect. Those who didn’t know Mary were astonished that someone in so much pain could enjoy life so much, nor the hours they spent gazing into each other’s eyes, holding hands, when Mary’s pain seemed to vanish. A second medical opinion, and a third, and a fourth, confirmed that Mary had little chance of recovery even to her more recent state. And whatever measures been taken, whatever testimony Peter and Mary could give about the joy of their lives, the court’s decision still came:

The court wishes to briefly review the facts of the case. Subject is suffering increasingly severe effects from an injury that curtailed her life greatly as a young person. from which she has never recovered, and is causing increasingly complications now that she will never again have youth’s ability to heal. No fewer than four medical opinions admitted as expert testimony substantially agree that subject is in extraordinary and excruciating pain; that said excruciating pain is increasing; that said excruciating pain is increasingly unresponsive to medication; that subject has fully lost autonomy and is dependent on her husband; that this dependence is profound, without choice, and causes her husband to be dependent without choice on others and exercise little autonomy; and the prognosis is only of progressively worse deterioration and increase in pain, with no question of recovery.

The court finds it entirely understandable that the subject, who has gone through such trauma, and is suffering increasingly severe complications, would be in a state of some denial. Although a number of positions could be taken, the court also finds it understandable that a husband would try to maintain a hold on what cannot exist, and needlessly prolong his wife’s suffering. It is not, however, the court’s position to judge whether this is selfish…

For all the impressive-sounding arguments that have been mounted, the court cannot accord a traumatized patient or her ostensibly well-meaning husband a privelege that the court itself does not claim. The court does not find that it has an interest in allowing this woman to continue in her severe and worsening state of suffering.

Peter was at her side, holding her hand and looking into his wife’s eyes, The hospital doctor had come. Then Peter said, “I love you,” and Mary said, “I love you,” and they kissed.

Mary’s kiss was still burning on Peter’s lips when two nurses hooked Mary up to an IV and injected her with 5000 milligrams of sodium thiopental, then a saline flush followed by 100 milligrams of pancurium bromide, then a saline flush and 20 milligrams of potassium chloride.

A year later to the day, Peter died of a broken heart.

Knights and Ladies

Cover for Knights and Ladies, Women and Men

I would like to talk about men and women and the debate about whether we are genuinely different or whether this aspect of our bodies is just packaging that has no bearing on who we are. I would like to begin by talking about three things:

  • “Egalitarianism,” which says not only that men and women are due equal respect but the differences are differences of body only and not differences of mind, heart, and spirit.
  • “Complementarianism,” which says that there are real and personal differences, and men and women are meant to complement each other.
  • Why the debate between egalitarianism and complementarianism is like a car crash.

Egalitarianism, Complementarianism, and Car Crashes

I was in a theology class when the professor argued emphatically that for two claims to contradict each other, one must be the exact opposite of the other. With the example he gave, it sounded fairly impressive, and it took me a while to be able to explain my disagreement.

Saying, for one claim to contradict another, that one must be the exact opposite of the other, its mirror image, is like saying that you can only have an auto collision if the two cars are the same kind of car, with the same shape, and they must be perfectly aligned when they hit each other—because if there’s part of one car that doesn’t touch the other car, then there hasn’t been a real collision.

That is simply wrong. In the world of cars, only the tiniest fraction of collisions are two identical cars, hitting each other dead center to dead center. When there’s a collision, it is usually two different things which hit off center. And the same is true of ideas. Most collisions in the realm of ideas are two very different things, not mirror images. What happens is that one piece of one of them, perhaps the leftmost edge of the bumper, hits one piece of the other, and in both that one piece is connected to the whole structure. There is much more involved in the collision, on both sides, than that one little bit.

A debate many Christians care about, the debate between the feminist-like egalitarians and the more traditional complementarians, is interesting. (I’ll say ‘complementarian’ for now, even though I don’t like the term.) It is interesting as an example of a debate where the collision is not between mirror images. Egalitarianism is not the mirror image of complementarianism, and complementarianism is not the mirror image of egalitarianism. They are very different beasts from each other.

Although this is only the outer shell, egalitarians are usually better communicators than complementarians. Most egalitarians make an explicit claim and communicate it very powerfully. Complementarians usually have trouble explaining their position, let alone presenting it as compellingly as egalitarians do. This has the effect that people on both sides have a much clearer picture of what egalitarian stands for than what complementarianism stands for. The egalitarian claim is often backed by a coherent argument, while the complementarian claim may have Biblical proof texts but often has little else.

I would like to try and suggest what complementarians have so much trouble explaining.

Colors

When I took a cognitive science class, the professor explained a problem for cognitive science: ‘qualia’. A computer can represent red and green as two different things. As far as theory problems go, that’s easy to take care of. The problem is that the computer knows red and green are different only as we can know that two numbers are different. It can’t deal with the redness of the red or the greenness of the green: in other words it lacks qualia. It can know things are different, but not experience them as really, qualitatively different.

Some people can only hear complementarianism as rationalising, “White is brighter than black.” Yet it is foundationally a claim of, “Red is red and green is green.”

I don’t like the term ‘complementarian.’ It tells part of the truth, but not enough—a property you can see, but not the essence. I would suggest the term ‘qualitarian,’ for a belief in qualia and qualitative differences. The term’s not perfect either, but it’s describing some of the substance rather than detail. From here on I’ll say ‘qualitarian’ rather than ‘complementarian’ to emphasise that there are qualia involved.

With that mentioned, I’d like to make the most unpalatable of my claims next, and hope that if the reader will be generous enough not to write me off yet, I may be able to make some coherent sense.

The Great Chain of Being

This is something that was important to many Christians and which encapsulates a way of looking on the world that can be understood, but takes effort.

God

Angels

Humans

Animals

Plants

Rocks

Nothing

The Great Chain of Being was believed for centuries. When the people who believed it were beginning to think like moderns, the Great Chain of Being began to look like the corporate ladder. If there were things above you, you wanted to climb higher because it’s not OK to be you if someone else is higher than you. If there were things above you, you wanted to look down and sneer because there was something wrong with anything below you. That’s how heirarchy looks if the only way you can understand it is as a copy of the corporate ladder.

Before then, people saw it differently. To be somewhere in the middle of the great order was neither a reason to scorn lower things nor covet higher places. Instead, there was a sense of connection. If we are the highest part of the physical creation, then we are to be its custodian and in a real sense its representative. If we are spirits as well, we are not squashed by the fact that God is above us; the one we should worship looks on us in love.

Unlike them, our culture has had centuries of democracy and waving the banner of equality so high we can forget there are other banners to wave. We strive for equality so hard that it’s easy to forget that there can be other kinds of good.

The Great Chain of Being is never explained in the Bible, but it comes out of a certain kind of mindset, a mindset better equipped to deal with certain things.

There’s an old joke about two people running from a bear. One stops to put on shoes. The other says, “What are you doing?” The first says, “I’m stopping to put on tennis shoes.” The second says, “You can’t outrun the bear!” “I don’t need to outrun the bear. I only need to outrun you.”

One might imagine a medieval speaking with a postmodern. The medieval stands in his niche in the Great Chain of Being and stops. The postmodern says, “Why are you stopping?” The medieval says, “I want to enjoy the glorious place God has granted me in the Great Chain of Being.” The postmodern says, “How can you be happy with that? There are others above you.” The medieval says, “Not all of life is running from a bear.”

What am I trying to say? Am I saying, for instance, that a man is as high above a woman as God is above an angel? No. All people—men, women, young, old, infant, red, yellow, black, white—are placed at the same spot on the Great Chain of Being.

The Bible deals with a paradox that may be called “equality with distinction”. Paul writes that “In Christ there is no Jew nor Greek”, yet claims that the advantage of the Jew is “much in every way.” Biblical thinking has room to declare both an equality at deepest level—such as exists between men and women—and recognize a distinction. There is no need to culturally argue one away to defend the other. Both are part of the truth. It is good to be part of a Creation that is multilayered, with inequality and not equality between the layers. If this is so, how much more should we be able to consider distinction with fundamental equality without reading the distinction as the corporate ladder’s abrasive inequality?

One writer talked about equality in relation to containers being full. To modify her image, Christianity wants all of us to be as full as possible. However, it does not want a red paint can to be filled with green paint, nor a green paint can to be filled with red paint. It wants the red and green paint cans to be equally full, but does not conclude that the green can is only full if it has the same volume of red paint as the red paint can. It desires equality in the sense of everyone being full, but does not desire e-qual-ity (being without a qual-itative difference), in the sense of qualia being violated.

Zen and the Art of Un-Framing Questions

May we legitimately project man-like attributes up on to God?

Before answering that question, I’d like to suggest that there are assumptions made by the time that question is asked. The biggest one is that God is gender-neutral, and so any talking about God as masculine is projecting something foreign up on to him.

The qualitarian claim is not that we may legitimately project man-like attributes up on to God. It is that God has projected God-like attributes down on to men. Those are different claims.

A feminist theologian said to a master, “I think it is important that we keep an open mind and avoid confining God to traditional categories of gender.”

The master said, “Of course. Why let God reveal himself as masculine when you can confine him to your canons of political correctness?”

I can’t shake a vision of an articulate qualitarian giving disturbing answers to someone’s questions and sounding like an annoying imitation of a Zen master:

Interlocutor:
What would you say to, “A woman’s place is in the House—and in the Senate!”?

Articulate Qualitarian:
Well, if we’re talking about disrespectful, misogysnistic… Wait a minute… Let me respond to the intention behind your question.

Do you know the Bible story about the Woman at the Well?

Interlocutor:
Yes! It’s one of my favorite stories.

Articulate Qualitarian:
Do you know its cultural context?

Interlocutor:
Not really.

Articulate Qualitarian:
Most Bible stories—including this one—speak for themselves. A few of them are much richer if you know cultural details that make certain things significant.

Every recorded interaction between Jesus and women, Jesus broke rules. To start off, a rabbi wasn’t supposed to talk with women. But Jesus really broke the rules here.

When a lone woman came out and he asked for water, she was shocked enough to ask why he did so. And there’s something to her being alone.

Drawing water was a communal women’s task. The women of the village would come and draw water together; there was a reason why this woman was alone: no one would be caught dead with her. Everyone knew that she was the village slut.

Her life was dominated by shame. When Jesus said, “…never thirst again,” she heard an escape from shamefully drawing water alone, and she asked Jesus to help her hide from it. When he said to call her husband, she gave an evasive and ambiguous reply. He gave a very blunt response: “You are right in saying you have no husband, for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”

Yowch.

Instead of helping her run from her shame, Jesus pulled her through it, and she came out the other side, running without any shame, calling, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did!”

There’s much more, but I want to delve into one specific detail: there was something abnormal about her drawing water alone. Drawing water was women’s work. Women’s work was backbreaking toil—as was men’s work—but it was not done in isolation. It was something done in the company of other people.

It’s not just that one culture. There are old European paintings that show a group of women, bent over their washboards, talking and talking. Maybe I’m just romanticizing because I haven’t felt how rough washboards are to fingers. But I have a growing doubt that labor-saving devices are all they’re cracked up to be. Vacuum cleaners were introduced as a way to lessen the work in the twice-annual task of beating rugs. Somehow each phenomenal new labor-saving technology seems to leave housewives with even more drudgery.

I have sympathy for feminists who say that women are better off doing professional work in community than doing housework in solitary confinement. I think feminists are probably right that the Leave It to Beaver arrangement causes women to be lonely and depressed. (I’m not sure that “Turn the clock back, all the way back, to 1954!” represents the best achievement conservatives can claim.)

The traditional arrangement is not Mom, Dad, two kids, and nothing more. Across quite a lot of cultures and quite a lot of history, the usual pattern has kept extended families together (seeing Grandma didn’t involve interstate travel), and made those extended families part of an integrated community. From what I’ve read, women are happier in intentional communities like Reba Place.

Interlocutor:
Do you support the enfranchisement of women?

Articulate Qualitarian:
Let me visit the dict.org website. Webster’s 1913 says:

      Enfranchisement \En*fran"chise*ment\, n.
         1. Releasing from slavery or custody. —Shak.
  
         2. Admission to the freedom of a corporation or body politic;
            investiture with the privileges of free citizens.

         Enfranchisement of copyhold (Eng. Law), the conversion of a
            copyhold estate into a freehold. —Mozley & W.

WordNet seems less helpful; it doesn’t really mention the sense you want.

      enfranchisement
           1: freedom from political subjugation or servitude
           2: the act of certifying [syn: certification] [ant: disenfranchisement]

If I were preaching on your question, I might do a Greek-style exegesis and say that your choice of languages fuses the egalitarian request to grant XYZ with the insinuation that their opponents’ practice is equivalent to slavery. Wow.

I think you’re using loaded language. Would you be willing to restate your question in less loaded terms?

Interlocutor:
Ok, I’ll ask a different way, but will you promise not to answer with a word-study?

Articulate Qualitarian:
Ok, I won’t answer with a word-study unless you ask.

Interlocutor:
Do you believe that women have the same long list of rights as men?

Articulate Qualitarian:
Hmm… I’m trying to think about how to answer this without being misleading…

Interlocutor:
Please answer me literally.

Articulate Qualitarian:
I’m afraid I’m going to have to say, “No.”

Interlocutor:
But you at least believe that women have some rights, correct?

Articulate Qualitarian:
No.

Interlocutor:
What?!?

Articulate Qualitarian:
I said I wouldn’t give a word-study…

Is it OK if I give a comparable study of a concept?

Interlocutor:
[Quietly counts to ten and takes a deep breath:] Ok.

Articulate Qualitarian:
I don’t believe that women have any rights. I don’t believe that men have any rights, either. The Bible doesn’t use rights like we do. It answers plenty of questions we try to solve with rights: it says we shouldn’t murder, steal, and so on. But the older Biblical way of doing this said, “Don’t do this,” or “Be like Christ,” or something like that.

Then this really odd moral framework based on rights came along, and all of a sudden there wasn’t a universal law against unjustified killing, but an entitlement not to be killed. At first it seemed not to make much difference. But now more and more of our moral reasoning is in terms of ‘rights’, which increasingly say, not “Don’t do this,” or “You must do that,” but “Here’s the long list of entitlements that the universe owes me.” And that has meant some truly strange things.

In the context of the concrete issues that qualitarians discuss with egalitarians, the Biblical concept of seeking the good of all is quietly remade into seeking the enfranchisement of all, and so it seems that the big question is whether women get the same rights as men—quite apart from the kind of situation where language comparing your opponents’ behavior to slavery is considered polite.

Interlocutor:
Couldn’t we listen to, say, Eastern Philosophy?

Articulate Qualitarian:
There’s a lot of interesting stuff in Eastern philosophy. The contrast between Confucian and Taoist concepts of virtue, for instance, is interesting and worth exploring, especially in this nexus. I’m really drawing a blank as to how one could get a rights-based framework from Asian philosophy. And I’m not sure African mindsets would be much more of a help, for instance. Even if you read one Kwaanza pamphlet, it’s hard to see how individual rights could come from the seven African values. The value of Ujima, or collective work and responsibility, speaks even less of individual rights than, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

Interlocutor:
Ok, let me change the subject slightly. Would you acknowledge that Paul was a progressive?

Articulate Qualitarian:
Hmm… reminds me of a C.S. Lewis book in which Lewis quotes a medieval author. The author is talking about some important Greek philosopher and says, “Now when we come to a difficulty or ambiguity, we should always ascribe the views most worthy of a man of his stature.”

Lewis’s big complaint was that this kind of respect always reads into an author the biases and assumptions of the reader’s age. It honors the author enough to think he believed what we call important, but not enough that the author can disagree with our assumptions and be able to correct us.

When we ask if Paul is a progressive, there are two basic options. Either we say that Paul was not a progressive, and relegate him to our understanding of a misogynist, or we generously overlook a passage here and there and generously include him as one of our progressives.

It seems that neither response allows Paul to be an authority who knows something we don’t.

On second thought, maybe it’s a good thing there aren’t too many articulate qualitarians.

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus… and Gender Psychologists are from the Moon

When pop psychology talks about gender, it is trying to make academic knowledge available to the rest of us. An academic textbook by Em Griffin illustrates Deborah Tannen’s theories, saying, “Jan hopes she’s marrying a ‘big ear’.” This thread is picked up very well in popular works.

William Harley’s His Needs, Her Needs is a sort of Christianized Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Harley devotes a full chapter to explaining that one of the most foundational needs for a husband to understand is a woman’s need for listening. He devotes a full chapter to convincing husbands that it is essential that they listen to everything their wives want to say. It was perhaps because reading this work (and Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, part of You Just Don’t Understand, etc.) that I was shocked when I reread C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. It was much more than Mother Dimble’s words, “Husbands were made to be talked to. It helps them concentrate their minds on what they’re reading…”

The shock was deep. It wasn’t like having a rug pulled out from under your feet. It was more like standing with your feet on bare floor and having the floor pulled out from under your feet.

The gender books I’d read, both Christian and non-Christian, made a seamless fusion of the basic raw material, and one particular interpretation. The interpretation was as hard to doubt as the raw material itself—and one couldn’t really see the fusion as something thatcan be questioned. It was like looking at a number of startlingly accurate pictures of scenes on earth—and then realising that all the pictures were taken from the moon.

That Hideous Strength suggests an answer to the question, “How else could it be?” I’m hesitant to suggest everyone else will have the same experience, but…

If we look at a Hollywood movie targeting young men, there will be violent action, a fast pace, and a sense of adventure. A movie made for young women will have people talking and delving into emotions as they grow closer, as they grow into more mature relationships. If we sum these up in a single word, the men’s movie is full of action, and the women’s movie is filled with relationship.

Aristotle characterized masculinity as active and femininity as passive. It seems clear to me that he was grappling with a real thing, the same thing that shapes our movie offerings. It also seems clear that he didn’t quite get it right. Masculinity is active. That much is correct. But femininity is not described by the absence of such action. It’s described by the presence of relationship. It seems that the following can be said:

  • Aristotle was grappling with, and trying to understand, something real.
  • Even though he’s observing something real, his interpretation was skewed.

These two things didn’t stop with Aristotle. If a thinker as brilliant as Aristotle fell into this trap, maybe gender psychology is also liable to stumble this way, too. (Or at least today’s gender psychology stumbles this way. If you’re willing to listen to people who look and talk a bit different and are a bit older than us, Charles Shedd’s Letters to Karen and Letters to Philip are examples of slightly older books worth the time to look at.)

Christian Teaching

About this point, I expect a question like, “Ok, men reflect the masculine side of God. But don’t you have a place for femininity, and can’t women reflect the feminine side of God?”

This is a serious question, and it reflects a serious concern. Many Hindus believe that everything is either part of God or evil: your inmost spirit is a real part of God, and your body is intrinsically evil and illusory like everything else physical. I’m told that Genesis 1 was quite a shocker when it appeared—not, so much, because it says we’re made in the image of God, but because after the stars, rocks, plants, and animals were created, the text keeps on saying, “And God saw that it was good.” That’s really a staggering suggestion, if you knew the other nations’ creation stories. The Babylonians believed that the god Marduk killed the demoness Tiamat, tore her dragon carcass apart, and made half of it the land and half of it the sky. So your body and mine, every forest, every star, is part of a demon’s carcass that happens to be left over after a battle.

Please think about this claim for a minute, and then look at part of Genesis 1:

  • Creation didn’t happen as a secondary result of divine combat. God created the world because he specifically wanted to do so.
  • Physical matter, and life, and everything else, is good.
  • God made us in his image. Only then was his creation very good, and complete.

One thing that comes out of these things is that God can create good. God created the physical world without being physical. Our bodies, indeed the whole natural world, are good, because God created something outside of himself. Femininity is like this, only much more so. Femininity is a created good, and it is much more beautiful, more mysterious, more wondrous, more powerful thing than physical matter. People are the unique creation where matter meets spirit—no other creation can claim that. Women are the unique point where spirit meets the very apex of femininity.

Every woman is a mystery, and every man is a king. To be a Christian man is to be made like the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. There is something kingly and lordly about manhood. Part of this is understood when you realize that this does not mean domineering other people and standing above them, but standing under them, like the servant king who washed feet. The sign and sigil of male authority is not a crown of gold, but a crown of thorns.

But all this is a hint. I give sketch here and there, and I hope less to provide an inescapable logical framework than suggest entry points that can look into the Bible and see these things.

I’d like to give a glimpse of the qualities:

Qualia

Lord Adam, Dragonslayer

If you could see Adam, you would see a knight, in burnished armor brightly gleaming, astride a white horse. What you wouldn’t see is why the armor shines brightly. It is not burnished by him, nor any other human hands, but the claws of the dragons he wars against. Under his helmet is a lion’s mane of thick hair and beard. Under his breastplate are scars, some quite close to his heart.

This knight errant yearns for quests. Something difficult, something dangerous, something active. Some place to prove himself by serving in a costly way. He longs for that battle when his blood will mingle with that of his fellow warriors and he may at last embark on the last great adventure.

He has a lord above him, to whom he owes allegiance and honor. He is also a mentor, turning his face to a squires whom he focuses on and draws up. He draws them, as he was drawn, out of the comfort of home, into the mysteries of life, and into the company of men and society to reconnect more deeply. He has tried to explain that siring a child is something an impudent youth can do, but being a spiritual father is the mark of a man.

Once his mind is on a task, it moves forward from beginning to end. It moves with the force of an avalanche. He does one task at a time, and wants to do it well.

There is another side to his seriousness. He can be deadly serious, but there is a merry twinkle in his eye. His force and his energy are too much to contain, and he is capable of catching people off guard. (Especially in his practical jokes.) Like the lion, he is not safe and not tame; he is both serious and silly, and can astound in both. When he plays with children, playing with him is both like playing with a kitten and playing with a thunderstorm.

To his lady Adam turns with reverence. She is a wonder to him. The extravagance of the quests she bids him and he embarks on, is a spectacular offshoot of his more quiet service in private. Though Adam would never see it this way, he is taller when he bows and kisses her hand, and richer when he gives her a costly gift.

His honor is his life, and wants to live and act as a son of God. He believes that faithworks, and strives to show virtue and behave in a manner worthy of Christ.

Favorite Scripture Passage:
“And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

A Quote:
“God, give me mountains to climb and the strength for climbing.”

Lady Eve, Poet’s Heart

If you could see Eve at her best, she would be beside a fire, inside a great hall. She would be stoking a fire with one hand, another hand would call forth forth music from a silver harp, another hand would be writing a letter, and she would use both hands to embrace the sorrowing child on her lap in comforting love. And she would do this lightly, joyfully, with a smile from the other side of pain. Though Eve sits still, one can almost see her dancing. It would take time to see all her many layers of beauty… if that were even possible. What is the secret behind her enigmatic smile? What deep mysteries lie hidden in her heart of hearts?

Her beauty is as a rose: a ladder of thorns leads up to a flower so exquisite as to be called God’s autograph. She toils hard, and it is difficult to see lines of pain in her face only because she has worked through them so that they have become part of her joy. She knows a mother’s worry, and she looks on others with a mother’s caring eyes. She looks with the joy on the other side of sorrow.

Her home is her castle, and it is a castle she tries to run well. Adam… well, dear man as he is, he isn’t very good with managing resources. She runs the castle in an orderly and efficient manner, and as the lady in charge, she handles well a great many things that her lord wouldn’t know how to begin doing. The castle is their castle, of course, but there are things that need attending to so that Adam can continue slaying dragons. Yet to say that is to put last things first. The reason she handles so many taxing details is that Adam is the light of her life, her king and her lord, her bright morning star.

She turns to her loom as a place to make wall hangings. At least, that’s what someone would say if he missed the point completely. She makes beautiful wall hangings, but there’s more.

The loom is a centering place for her, a quieting place. After other things happen that take processing, she settles into that peace. Her heart is quieted as she lets it all sort out.

That quieting is not far from her mystic’s heart. She is mystery and lives in connection with the mystery of faith. There is One she is closer to than her lord, and presence, mystical communion, dwelling in the presence of the divine, is precious to her.

Favorite Scripture Passage:
“Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

A Quote:
“Little surprises and big hugs and kisses.
Musical dances and bright reminisces,
Quiet with stories and roast leg of lamb,
People who value me for who I am,
Something to say and someone who will hear it,
A home in good order and a mystical spirit,
Warm fireside chats and a minstrel who sings,
These are a few of my favorite things.”

CJS Hayward, with thanks to Martin, Phil, Mary, Xenia, Patrick, Yoby, Mom, and Kathryn.

St. John the Much-Suffering

Make icon Full size

St. John the Much-Suffering is a saint who fought industrial-strength sexual temptation for decades and WON in every sense of the term.

His life reads:

Venerable John the Long-Suffering of the Kiev Near Caves

Commemorated on July 18

St John the Much-Suffering pursued asceticism at the Kiev Caves Lavra, accepting many sorrows for the sake of virginity.

The ascetic recalled that from the time of his youth he had suffered much, tormented by fleshly lust, and nothing could deliver him from it, neither hunger nor thirst nor heavy chains. He then went into the cave where the relics of St Anthony rested, and he fervently prayed to the holy Abba. After a day and a night the much-suffering John heard a voice: “John! It is necessary for you to become a recluse, in order to weaken the vexation by silence and seclusion, and the Lord shall help you by the prayers of His monastic saints.” The saint settled into the cave from that time, and only after thirty years did he conquer the fleshly passions.

Tense and fierce was the struggle upon the thorny way on which the monk went to victory. Sometimes the desire took hold of him to forsake his seclusion, but then he resolved on still greater effort. The holy warrior of Christ dug out a pit and with the onset of Great Lent he climbed into it, and he covered himself up to the shoulders with ground. He spent the whole of Lent in such a position, but the burning of his former passions did not leave him. The enemy of salvation brought terror upon the ascetic, wishing to expel him from the cave: a fearsome serpent, breathing fire and sparks, tried to swallow the saint. For several days these evil doings continued.

On the night of the Resurrection of Christ the serpent seized the head of the monk in its jaws. Then St John cried out from the depths of his heart: “O Lord my God and my Savior! Why have You forsaken me? Have mercy upon me, only Lover of Mankind; deliver me from my foul iniquity, so that I an not trapped in the snares of the Evil one. Deliver me from the mouth of my enemy: send down a flash of lightning and drive it away.” Suddenly a bolt of lightning flashed, and the serpent vanished. A Divine light shone upon the ascetic, and a Voice was heard: “John! Here is help for you. Be attentive from now on, that nothing worse happen to you, and that you do not suffer in the age to come.”

The saint prostrated himself and said: “Lord! Why did You leave me for so long in torment?” “I tried you according to the power of your endurance,” was the answer. “I brought upon you temptation, so that you might be purified like gold. It is to the strong and powerful servants that a master assigns the heavy work, and the easy tasks to the infirm and to the weak. Therefore pray to the one buried here (Moses the Hungarian), he can help you in this struggle, for he did greater deeds than Joseph the Fair” (March 31). The monk died in the year 1160, having acquired grace against profligate passions. His holy relics rest in the Caves of St Anthony.

We pray to St John for deliverance from sexual impurity.

I have had a great devotion to St. John, enough that I commissioned the icon pictured, not only so that I would have the icon pictured (and after it touched the relics of the singularly triumphant St. Mary of Egypt (life story, icon) and St. John’s own relics.

But I asked and received permission to show St. John the Much-Suffering from my website, and so this page has a copy of the icon, which you can see by scrolling up. There are two buttons, “BIGGER” and “smaller”, and you can use them to adjust the size, then print the icon out and attach it to a board.

I apologize for the crudity of this method, but St. John is a treasure, I think an icon of him has been needed since long before I placed my order, and he is particularly relevant now.

St. John the Much-Suffering is a powerful intercessor for praying for your own struggles.

St. John the Much-Suffering is also a powerful intercessor for praying for others who are tempted along with praying, in the spirit of “I am the chief of sinners,” for mercy and one’s own purity.

Triumph over powerful temptation is possible!

“Inclusive” Language and Other Debates: An Orthodox Alumnus Responds to His Advisor

Cover for Knights and Ladies, Women and Men

How I scared off all the other advisors

Before I became Orthodox, I entered a diploma in theology program and wanted to do a thesis on programming-style “design patterns” and recurring patterns in Biblical Egalitarian argument where problems in the arguments, it seemed to me, raised a red flag about the conclusions. I managed to scare off most prospective advisors by the idea of using concepts used in computer science, and almost scared off even the Biblical scholar who handles the computer stuff at a place connected with the university before (somewhat by accident) he looked at the concept I wanted to carry over from computer science and concluded that it wasn’t so scary after all, and in fact while he said, “I have never heard of an approach like this before,” the concept itself was nowhere so scary to a scholar in theology as the impression I gave by how I introduced my intended thesis. I wrote a thesis under his direction, and at the end of the year, mostly in gesture of thanks, I gave him a classic text in object-oriented programming’s “design patterns.”

The scholar is a major scholar in Biblical Egalitarian circles, as in a plenary speaker at CBE conferences. He gave me kind and appropriate direction in a thesis that critique common styles of argument associated with convictions that are important to him, and we’ve remained in contact every now and then. There may be important distinctions within Biblical Egalitarians, but when he directed me he was working to help me produce a good thesis and did so without trying to lead me to his position, and I do not know what exactstripe of Biblical Egalitarian he is.

Defining terms

I use the terms Biblical Egalitarian and complementarian heavily here. The two terms represent the liberal and conservative camps on issues of men, women, and gender. The flagship organization for Biblical Egalitarians (or, more simply, egalitarians) is Christians for Biblical Equality; the flagship organization for complementarians is The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

Biblical Egalitarians try to combine Christianity with feminist concerns of various stripes. For one example, they adamantly believe the Bible’s “In Christ there is no… male nor female” and, more specifically, consistently try to neutralize “Wives, submit to your husbands as if to the Lord… Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave his life for her…” to make room for “no male nor female”. To the Egalitarian, if you really believe “In Christ there is no male nor female”, you believe it on terms informed by feminism. In my experience Biblical Egalitarianism is always argued with sophistry; what got me off sitting on the fence was a forceful presentation of Biblical Egalitarianism clothed in rhetoric that profoundly disturbed me. There is more to Biblical egalitarianism than inclusive language advocacy, but one part of their concern is that using “man” or “brother” when your intent is generic is perpetuating an injustice towards women. Overall there are several feminist-influenced concerns in Biblical egalitarianism; inclusive language is one of them. The basic goal of Bible scholarship pursued by Biblical Egalitarians is to arrive at an understanding of key passages that is more informed by feminist concerns.

Complementarians, in a name as carefully chosen as “egalitarians”, argue that we are missing something until we understand men and women as complementary. They tend to believe that “In Christ there is no… male nor female” and “Wives, submit to your husbands as if to the Lord… Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave his life for her…” both belong to the same whole and in fact seem to both be cut from the same cloth. Complementarians are people who say, “No, that’s not good,” in response to feminism trying to uproot elements of traditional society. However, groups like the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood are making a proactive effort to take a positive position. They are not simply making a negative reaction to change; they are trying to offer a carefully considered positive position about why specific changes are not good and what a real, serious alternative to those changes would be. The basic goal of Bible scholarship pursued by complementarians is to arrive at an understanding that is more Biblical—not for us to adjust the Bible, but for the Bible to adjust us.

“Inclusive” language is not the only issue for either, but it is not a trivial issue, and I focus on it here. I would briefly suggest that what is at issue is not whether women are included, but the terms of inclusion: belabored “inclusive” language pushes to a Biblical egalitarian version of inclusion, while traditional language includes women on more complementarian terms.

Where I stand

Where do I stand? “It’s complicated” may be the best short answer, but that’s misleading. First of all, though I am closer to complementarianism than egalitarianism, it does not mean “I’m a complementarian but I’d rather not say so plainly,” and second of all, it does not mean, “I’m trying to forge my own new path between the two extremes.” Then what on earth does it mean? Um, it’s complicated.

The Catholic Church teaches that Catholics and Orthodox believe the same things, and ultimately the only barrier to reunification is that the Orthodox fail to lovingly recognize that we should restore full communion. I responded to that in An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism. Some Orthodox have found it a bit forceful, but more have found it astute in its observations. But Catholics have only given one response: “FOUL! There’s no way you can understand us if you are saying what you are saying about Thomas Aquinas and such.” And as Orthodox, I find the question “Are you a complementarian or egalitarian?” something like “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” as a false dilemma.

Before becoming Orthodox, I wrote an essay called “Knights and Ladies” that tried to pin down as qualities manhood and womanhood, and suggested a made-up term “qualitarian” as an alternative to “complementarian.” It’s a piece that I consulted several men and women in writing, that complementarians seem to like and egalitarians seem to critique, but I now regard it as flawed. It’s not exactly that I want to mix in more egalitarianism, but the basic project I took on was a thick description of qualities as a line of response, and a thick description of qualities is part of postmodern Zeitgeist and not a real part of Orthodox theology, and as such it is (arguably) a fairly successful attempt to bark up the wrong tree in offering a rebuttal.

There is a forum where I posted certain arguments and received counter-arguments from Orthodox scholars that were subtly reminiscent of the kinds of arguments I had studied in Biblical Egalitarian texts in that thesis. For one example, I made an argument from experience and basic observations about society, and it was dismissed by an Orthodox scholar who had just published a paper with his own thesis. The stated ground? I wasn’t arguing from the Fathers. I’d almost like to say that I let that dismissal slide; a close reading of Church Fathers is not what powers the Church Fathers, but writing of spiritual realities out of experience. But I dropped that line of argument, and in response to his dismissal of both my argument and other attempts to define the qualities of male and female, I pulled from the beloved theologian St. Maximus Confessor and said that, like the Cappadocians and some other figures, St. Maximus Confessor did very much root for transcending the differences between male and female, but this was in connection with a theology that sought to transcend the differences between the spiritual and the material, paradise and the inhabited world, Heaven and earth, and ultimately the uncreated and the created. In every one of the other four cases, the desire to transcend a difference assumes there’s a difference in place to begin with. When I gave this answer to a request to argue from the Church Fathers, he dismissed St. Maximus on this point altogether, saying that his widely loved theology was just flawed.

This example may invite a gentle response of, “Your interlocutor was a scholar who had just published a paper that you were hacking away at; it would be naive to expect him to welcome your argument.” And perhaps it would be, but this is an example of a common thread; though Orthodox heirarchs have not necessarily treated feminism as something to put their foot down on, and there are Biblical Egalitarians and feminists in the Orthodox Church, every single argument I’ve seen from an Orthodox trying to help me be more open and receptive to those perspectives has arguments that smell really funny—a strong whiff of eau de red flag.

I haven’t spent too much more time revising my beliefs after becoming Orthodox, not really because I think I’ve arrived at the full truth, but because as people grow in Orthodoxy, sooner or later they figure out that there is more important work than straightening out their worldviews, and they let go of reasoning about truth because they are working to drink Truth Himself. Nonetheless, I wanted to give this email conversation between him and myself, and pay attention to how appropriate or inappropriate the rhetoric is in particular.

Should we really be that concerned about rhetoric?

I pay very close attention to rhetoric, rhetorical examples, and argument in these pages. There is a reason why which arises from my experience.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ calls for a very close care to the fruits people bear:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.

The most obvious “fruits” might be how people are treated, especially the less powerful, sexual behavior, and so on, but as time has passed rhetoric has time and again been faithful to its tree: commendable positions are advanced with commendable rhetoric and false positions are advanced with slippery rhetoric. It is a rare case, rare indeed, where truths we would best heed are heralded by rhetorical treachery.

I do not fault the presence of rhetoric; an observer would say that my writing is just as rhetorical, and just as much contains some kinds of argument and not others, as any piece whose rhetoric and argument I treat as cause for concern. But certain kinds of rhetoric aren’t just a rotten wrapping paper around healthgiving fruit. They betray that much more is tainted in the offering than merely a slight logical fallacy here, a misleading example there.

I would not limit the “fruit” in the Sermon on the Mount to be rhetoric alone; I don’t really believe it is one of the main fruits Christ intended to evoke, compared to how one treats the poor (for instance). But it is an important fruit in one respect: it is available to us as long as we have the message.

In this day of the Internet, false prophets may rarely meet us face to face and we may have little clue of a teacher’s sexual fidelity, or lack thereof, or whether the person arguing with us feels entitled to socially acceptable theft, whether to take office supplies or to listen to music without paying the artist or those who worked to make the music available. It might take a Big Brother to tell us whether an activist bears good or bad fruit there. But there is one way we can attend to the prophets’ fruits without Big Brother invasions of privacy: true and false prophet alike offer us their rhetoric, and it is well worth attending to this one fruit that is impossible to hide.

Rhetoric that keeps on recurring—giving an answer when it appears in email

Let us turn to the conversation, which began after put up a search engine and sent him a link; he followed a link and read, on my site, The Commentary, and then Inclusive Language Greek Manuscript Discovered. He responded to both:

My advisor wrote:

BTW I read your “Commentary” piece a couple of times. I wasn’t sure what you were getting at.
At first glance it looked like you are rejecting all interpretations which take cultural context into account.
At second reading it looks like you may merely be warning readers that humanity itself hasn’t changed, so we shouldn’t re-interpret the Bible as if people weren’t so clever then.
But I wasn’t sure.

But it left me wondering:
* Are you saying we shouldn’t make allowance for greater ignorance in the past?
We are no more intelligent now, but we do have better understanding about medicine, geology, astronomy etc. This affects the way we interpret things like “the moon turned to blood” – which we would now regard as an atmospheric phenomenon and nothing to do with the nature of the moon.

* Are you saying we shouldn’t make allowance for cultural situations in the past?
God expects the same morality from humans at all times, but don’t the rules change in order to result in the same principles? I’m thinking of things like slavery, which in the OT was restricted to certain permitted types (6-yr voluntary slavery, and minimum rights for lifelong slaves from warfare), and was tolerated in the NT “for the sake of the Gospel”, and was increasingly opposed by the church (albeit very gradually) with as much speed as society permitted.

Perhaps I didn’t read it carefully enough.

Then I went on to read your piece on the gender-neutral MS.
Do you really think that there are people who want to accurately reflect the gender of everything in the Bible? The NLT and others have followed the TNIV lead, and even the ESV has a policy of translating anthropos as ‘people’ or something similarly neutral. I don’t know ANY version which uses the pronoun “it” for the Holy Spirit when the Greek does – eg in Jn.14:17. How would you decide when to follow the Greek and when to follow English convention?

I guess that your aim for these pieces of writing is to provoke the reader to think about the issues, rather than give an answer.
You have certainly succeeded in my case!


My advisor wrote:

* Are you saying we shouldn’t make allowance for cultural situations in the past?
God expects the same morality from humans at all times, but don’t the rules change in order to result in the same principles? I’m thinking of things like slavery, which in the OT was restricted to certain permitted types (6-yr voluntary slavery, and minimum rights for lifelong slaves from warfare), and was tolerated in the NT “for the sake of the Gospel”, and was increasingly opposed by the church (albeit very gradually) with as much speed as society permitted.

Perhaps I didn’t read it carefully enough.

I wrote:

Perhaps one way we should put it is that we should attend to the beam in our own eye.

Then I went on to read your piece on the gender-neutral MS.
Do you really think that there are people who want to accurately reflect the gender of everything in the Bible? The NLT and others have followed the TNIV lead, and even the ESV has a policy of translating anthropos as ‘people’ or something similarly neutral. I don’t know ANY version which uses the pronoun “it” for the Holy Spirit when the Greek does – eg in Jn.14:17. How would you decide when to follow the Greek and when to follow English convention?

The point is not exactly that the English grammar of translations should follow Greek grammar as regards grammatical gender, but that what is going on in inclusive language isn’t going on in the Bible.

This response is brief and enigmatic: not the most helpful. But in the following emails I address the concerns and touch on the same things from different angles.

Despite the communication weaknesses in my writing, I thought some of the points were worth sharing.


My advisor wrote:

* Are you saying we shouldn’t make allowance for cultural situations in the past?
God expects the same morality from humans at all times, but don’t the rules change in order to result in the same principles? I’m thinking of things like slavery, which in the OT was restricted to certain permitted types (6-yr voluntary slavery, and minimum rights for lifelong slaves from warfare), and was tolerated in the NT “for the sake of the Gospel”, and was increasingly opposed by the church (albeit very gradually) with as much speed as society permitted.

I wrote:

I wanted to comment on this point more specifically.

To an American, references to slavery first evoke field-slaves in our country. The movie Malcolm X has Malcolm on a TV show debate opposite a black opponent who was very educated, culturally almost white, and played to what a white audience then would like to hear for their comfort. The host asked Malcolm what he called his opponent, and he shouted a racial slur and then distinguished between house- and field-slaves: the field-slave’s lot was extremely rough; the house slave was much less difficult and could verge on effectively being a well and politely-treated servant. Compared to the field slave who faced rough realities, the house slave almost represented a leisure class and the house-slave’s outlook and experience were white.

In the U.S., we no longer have people clothed in a few garments, meant to last, with cotton garments woven from the work of field slaves. We have instead many garments meant to wear out, and the culture of a fashion industry that socially enforces purchases above replacement of low-quality garments, made in sweatshops which wear people out faster than U.S. field slavery wore people out. And there are other areas where we are pushing forward not only on abortion, but on scientific use of human embryos meant to be destroyed. And I do not exclude the U.K. from this critique.

I would really not consider a picture to be complete that includes the abolition of slavery and remains, unlike St. John Chrysostom on slavery, silent on other areas where we do worse.

My initial response to his mention of slavery mentioned “a beam in our eye”; this was intended to specify one such beam that makes me skeptical of celebrations of how much we have progressed as a society.


My advisor wrote:

Could I press you a little more on what you mean by inclusive language? How would you translate the following:

Blessed is the man who … (Ps.1)
If a brother sins against you… (Lk.17.3)
God made man in his own image, … male and female he made them (Gen.1.27)

If we had read these in a modern English book, we’d assume the author was implying that
* women can’t be blessed,
* sisters don’t sin against you
* women aren’t made in the image of God.

Some Bibles are translated to help people understand what the words were in the Greek and Hebrew, while others are translated to help people understand what God’s message is, in their own language. It is fairly easy to translate those verses literally, but how would you translate them into modern English so that a reader wouldn’t get the wrong impression about what the message is?

I’m trying to gauge opinions on this from a wide range of people, and I’d be interested in your response.
But don’t feel pressured into answering – I won’t think badly of you if you don’t have time to answer.


My advisor wrote:

Could I press you a little more on what you mean by inclusive language?
How would you translate the following:

Blessed is the man who … (Ps.1)
If a brother sins against you… (Lk.17.3)
God made man in his own image, … male and female he made them (Gen.1.27)

If we had read these in a modern English book, we’d assume the author was implying that
* women can’t be blessed,
* sisters don’t sin against you
* women aren’t made in the image of God.

I wrote:

Your last paragraph almost begs the question; it’s reminiscent of saying “humankind” even though never, outside of the shadow of inclusive language efforts, has “mankind” been understood to encompass anything less than all of us.

“Exclusive” language is what “inclusive” language wants standard English to be. Inclusive language efforts, and specifically the efforts to recast the alternative as exclusive, redefining “man”, “brother” (and even “mankind”) to be male only, are not a more inclusive alternative to an unchanged option. They are an effort to replace a naturally inclusive language with a more belabored language, and redefine away the inclusive character of what is being attacked.

My point here is that “exclusive language” and “inclusive language” are no mere neutral and descriptive terms: they are loaded language that misrepresent what change is actually being advanced. An alternative, if pointed, terminology for “exclusive” language and “inclusive” language might be naturally inclusive language and belabored inclusive language.

“Exclusive” language is arguably not what inclusive language advocates say it is, language that includes women where the alternative is exclusive to them, except where inclusive language advocates have succeeded in redefining naturally inclusive language as exclusive language.

Furthermore, there are several things to untangle, and I give more than one answer to the question about how I would translate “If a brother…” and other passages because there is more than one thing to say. I write quite a few emails because there’s really quite a lot tangled up in the remarks I am responding to.


I wanted to add a couple of notes from a class that dealt in hardcore feminist theology. I am noting this specifically as something that I would not directly lump Biblical Egalitarians in with unless Biblical Egalitarians ask to be lumped in with them.

The first point was that several of them dealt with the question of an inclusive term for one person of unspecified gender, and in general did not opt to use “they” for one person. Several alternatives were tried, including “s/he” (pronounced “she”), and one author tried hard to make the point that “she” and “her” could be entirely appropriate as a rightly inclusive term for males as well as females.

The second point is that so far as I remember, none of the feminist authors were of limited concern for adult women only; some might speak at one point and refer only to adults (in reference to aging, for instance), but all of the authors were concerned for girls, and from whenever life began in their eyes, a girl was a full-fledged member of the class of women to be cared for…

…but none of them raised concerns of “inclusive language” that “woman” is a term only referring to adults, and so is wrongly applied to a 14 year old or a 14 month old.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but it seems when feminists want to use language that will include all females, their term of choice works like the “exclusive” language of “man”, “mankind”, and such. The list of people who choose the language style of naturally inclusive language, when they want to include all members of a group, includes feminists who never flinch at using “women” when they mean to include all females—girls every bit as much as adult women.

And returning to the topic of my advisor and his Biblical Egalitarianism, while he clearly uses and advocates gender-inclusive language, he never once uses what might be called age-inclusive language. He may ask if a rendering of “Blessed is the man…” demands “Women can’t be blessed”, but he seems entirely unconcerned to clarify whether minors can be blessed. He never uses words like “child”, “boy”, “girl”, “infant”, etc: he applies sophistry to ask us to make it clear that women can be blessed, but the same effort is not made for children, even if they are girls!

It would appear that at least as far as age is concerned, my advisor assumes that what is called “exclusive language” in gender is not exclusive at all, but naturally inclusive.


My advisor wrote:

Could I press you a little more on what you mean by inclusive language?
How would you translate the following:

Blessed is the man who … (Ps.1)
If a brother sins against you… (Lk.17.3)
God made man in his own image, … male and female he made them (Gen.1.27)

I wrote:

I might also comment, before giving a brief interlude that the first example on Orthodox rather than Protestant kinds of exegesis refers to Christ primarily and us derivatively, which is an aside to the context as it has been:

The last example differs from the first two examples, where conservative and liberal readings of the underlying text alike take terms as generic.

In terms of Orthodox Church Fathers who can attract feminists, the Cappadocians are one group of usual suspects; St. Ephrem, who had women as well as men chanting liturgical teaching in liturgy, is another, and Kathleen McVey’s Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns shows some of those concerns. At one point, “Branch” is the metaphorical name applied to the Cross and then Christ, and the translator explains that the term ‘branch’ is grammatically feminine and, at that point, renders repeated pronoun references to the Branch, which refer to Christ with varying ambiguity, as “She”.

The footnote I take as an example of the French proverb “Qui s’excuse, s’accuse” (in politically correct English: “To excuse yourself is [by that very fact] to accuse yourself”) and it is the same light that I read the NRSV’s excusing and accusing themselves for their translation for what you left out in the ellipsis, rendering “them” for “him” in “in the image of God he created him”; I’ve read the whole NRSV and that footnote is the most convoluted footnote justifying a translation that the NRSV offers; the NRSV does not usuallys’excuse/s’accuse concerning its renderings.

Now that is over the ellipsis. As regards referring to God as “him”, we have left the question of horizontal inclusive language where a grammatically male reference to a person of unspecified sex in the original text is argued to require explicitly gender-neutral language in English today. Or to put it differently, the original text worked more like the English now called “exclusive language”, but its spirit today is best reflected by the “inclusive language” that is used in redefining the alternative as “exclusive language”. But this question is not the issue in calling God “him”; at most it is a gateway drug.

The first two comments are simply about passages where all sensible scholarship agrees that “man”, “brother”, etc. as they appear in the original text are intended to include women. The last example is one where there is real controversy over whether the text should be rendered to be more politically correct. I was trying to say, “Look, I see two problems—cans of worms—in translating the last text that aren’t in the first two.”


My advisor wrote:

* Are you saying we shouldn’t make allowance for cultural situations in the past?
God expects the same morality from humans at all times, but don’t the rules change in order to result in the same principles? I’m thinking of things like slavery, which in the OT was restricted to certain permitted types (6-yr voluntary slavery, and minimum rights for lifelong slaves from warfare), and was tolerated in the NT “for the sake of the Gospel”, and was increasingly opposed by the church (albeit very gradually) with as much speed as society permitted.

I wrote:

There’s something I might like to comment.

There are some points where any number of examples might be chosen. In the Bible, Sodom is an emblem of sin and is used to say that a particular community’s sins are grievous, but the list of sins connected to Sodom is rather open-ended: without going with queer scholarship and saying that the sin had nothing to do with “sodomy”, there is room to say that the men of Sodom showing vile and obscene inhospitality to angelic visitors was the anvil that broke the camel’s back; part of the build-up is a dialogue in which Abraham tries to negotiate with a God who cannot find ten righteous in the city. The city is an image of vice later in the Bible, but the sins that are compared to Sodom are open-ended: they include hollow religious observances while preying on one’s neighbor and the poor (opening of Isaiah), adultery and defiled living (Jeremiah 23:14), pride and excessive eating without care for the poor (Ezekiel 16), not receiving Christ’s apostles appropriately (Matthew 10), general ungodliness (II Peter 2:6), and unnatural lust (Jude 7, perhaps the biggest fly in the ointment to queer exegetes who assert that Sodom’s story is no more about homosexual relations as such than the story in Judges 19 is about heterosexual relations as such). But the list is open-ended and I have not included connections of pagan nations; my main point is that the list of sins is open-ended; prophets name Sodom in connection to the sins they indict. And other things are open-ended in church and in scholarship…

But it really strikes me how much this one simple example of slavery and the Bible comes up in certain contexts. When I read queer scholarship arguing that the story of Sodom can be read without the hypothesis that homosexual relationships are condemned as such, a discussion of slavery in the Bible paves the way. When Craig Keener argues in the example of bad scholarship I chose for my thesis that we can do better than the Ephesians haustafel, a discussion of slavery in the Bible paves the way. When I discussed this regularity with one teacher, and asked “If it is necessary that we will get our bearings somewhere about what orients our understanding of Scripture, why this specific paradigm example?” It would seem that when people want to enhance what the Bible has, or draw out what it intends more clearly, or improve on it as demoted (if in fact I name more than one intent), the paradigm example that should orient our view of Scripture invariably finds itself in a Bible that did not offer our progressive abolitionism.

(I might comment in reference to my earlier example, though, of clothing and sweatshops: Before the abolition of slavery, Northern as well as Southern U.S. citizens who wore cotton were clothed at the expense of preventable human misery from field-slavery. And today, black and white Americans alike are clothed at the expense of preventable human misery from sweatshops. But there is a difference of scale. Americans own, use, and replace quite a few more garments, and if one may speak of a “carbon footprint”, one may perhaps also speak of a “footprint in preventable human misery”, and say that U.S. field slavery was an abomination, but the “footprint in preventable human misery” of an American today in clothing is not comparable to the footprint of an American before the civil war; it is comparable to the footprint of a small city. And as long as we have excess of clothing and other unneeded luxuries at the expense of preventable human misery, we should perhaps moderate our celebration of ourselves for having progressed beyond such evils as slavery.)

When I made the comment about this one example that keeps paving the way to orient us, the professor made a comment about canons within a canon, and I would like to comment on the concept and then her specific comment. The idea of a canon within a canon is not a particularly Orthodox one, and I’m not sure I’ve ever read an Orthodox theologian speak in such terms. The first time the concept was explained to me was something like this: “All great and even minor theologians draw disproportionately from some areas of the Bible more than others, and they do not all do so in exactly the same way. We call the areas of focus ‘the canon within the canon.'” And in that sense, I’m not sure there’s Orthodox room to object, even if there may be more important things to say. But what I would say is that while that is one way of understanding the canon, it is profoundly misleading to suggest that this is the only basic meaning current in academia. On those terms, which I’m not sure I’d particularly object to, “the canon within the canon” for a particular theologian is a simplification, a generalization, and the kind of thing you observe after the fact. One may claim to identify a particular theologian’s “canon within the canon” in something of the same spirit where C.S. Lewis spoke of defining periods in history: he didn’t see how you could do serious history without them, but they are a map that does necessary violence to its terrain, and unnecessary violence if it is imposed as an absolute.

In my time at another school, I heard the phase “canon within the canon” consistently. One example was when people were setting out to engage in a particular theology, and identified as the very first task to identify the canon within the canon. Taken in context, this was clarified to mean not “What few areas of the Bible will we give special focus?” but “What few areas of the Bible will we not truncate away?” Not all examples were the same as this, but I do not remember a usage of “the canon within the canon” that retained the boundaries and modesty of the definition I first met. And, returning to when I raised a question in a paper about getting our bearings from the passages of the Bible that treat slavery prescriptively and do not directly abolish it, my professor responded that there needed to be some canon within the canon. And that response surprised me. I have seen the example of slavery repeatedly, but apart from that one remark I have never heard it called “the canon within the canon.” But it does in a certain way make sense.

If you are going to orient and situate people so they will naturally seek to appreciate the Bible’s strengths while gently working to refine its weaknesses, then there is no “canon within the canon” in the Bible that can properly compete with prescriptive moral teaching in the Bible that sets bounds for slavery but fails to command its abolition.

The best nutshell summary I’ve heard of Polanyi’s theory of personal and tacit knowledge is, “Behaviorists do not teach, ‘There is no soul,’ but rather induct students into investigation in such a way that the possibility of a soul is never even considered.” And there is something telling along these lines in the slavery example that keeps being chosen when the audience is drawn to work and refine the Bible’s weaknesses.

I find the example significant.

On another note, I realized I had misread your intent because of where I cut a quotation. Let me quote the part that I muffed, and then respond to that.

God made man in his own image, … male and female he made them (Gen.1.27)

If we had read these in a modern English book, we’d assume the author was implying that

* women aren’t made in the image of God.

On that point may I comment about Mary the Mother and Birth-giver of our God?

There are some pretty medieval Catholic things that the Reformers kept even as they rebelled against Rome, and I’m not referring in this case to assuming that doctrines like the Trinity and the Incarnation should remain after reform.

There is precedent as old as Origen, and as Orthodox as a number of canonized saints, for having as one layer of piety an identification of the believer as the Lord’s bride. In Orthodoxy this is not as focal as the image of the Church as the bride of Christ, and in piety it is not nearly as important as the Biblical image of sons of God (I am intentionally using the masculine here; the Bible includes “children of God” but never “daughters of God”). But was really on steroids in the medieval Catholic West and the bedrock of sanctification through the metaphor of bridal mysticism remains the bedrock of sanctification in Evangelicalism today, and is part of a rather asinine question I asked in moving towards Orthodoxy: Is the reason so many Evangelical men are converting to Orthodoxy that Orthodoxy understands sanctification as deification and Evangelicalism understands sanctification as a close personal relationship with another man?

Another example has to do with what The Sin is, the one sin we ought most to look out for. In the pop caricature of Victorianism, The Sin was lust. Among many Evangelicals today, there is a wariness much like what made a Catholic Dorothy Sayers write, “The Other Six Deadly Sins”, and The Sin is pride. In late medieval Catholicism, The Sin was idolatry, and people were looking for it everywhere. If the Reformers found that the adoration of the saints to be idolatry, they were developing a medieval Catholic perspective.

Whether medieval Catholic and contemporary Orthodox veneration of Mary the Mother of God should be seen as the same or different is something I am not interested in exploring here, but the following element of Orthodox piety I am sure would have been classified as idolatry by the Reformers:

It is very proper and right to call thee blessed,
Who didst bring forth God,
Ever blessed and most pure,
And the Mother of our God.
More honorable than the cherubim,
And more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim,
Who without spot bearedst God the Word,
True Mother of God, we magnify thee.

I would like to make a point, and it is not exactly about agreeing to disagree. A basic Reformation outlook or worldview had no place to classify this other than as worship. First of all, it addresses Mary in the second person. In the culture of at least of Evangelicalism as I know it, in a secular context you address other people in the second person, but in a church context you address God alone in the second person. Second, it extols her above the highest ranks of angels and really gives her a place that the Reformers did not see as a place to be given rightly to a created and sinful human. And third, it calls her Mother of God, which would at least give the impression of placing her above God. The Christological controversy that led Nestorius’s attempt at a reasonable way to please everybody with “Christotokos” is known, at least on the books, but that “Mother of God” is both confessional Christology and not intended to place Mary as supra-divine (Orthodox liturgy refers to Joachim and Anna as “ancestors of God” and icons call James “the brother of God”), and a relational statement: “Mother of God” is not confused with being above God any more than the readings of “sons of God” in the Bible mean that we are taken to be fully divine by nature in the same sense as Christ.

My point in these clarifications is not exactly to say that the Reformation view is wrong; my point is to say that what is going on in those words is something that the Reformation universe has no place for, except in the category of worship that should be given to God alone.

And my reason for bringing this up is not to say “Because we praise Mary as the Mother of God, we don’t view women as inferior.” It is to say that, to paraphrase what I’m responding to, “Gen 1:27 says, ‘…in his image he created him, male and female he made them.’ Does this mean that women aren’t made in the image of God?”

There’s a fairly clear statement on that point in the Bible, in one of the passages that your camp sees as (residual?) misogynism in Paul and something that we need to progress beyond, because that’s the only place for it, much as an early Reformer could only see the liturgical quote above as idolatry, of rendering to a creature what is only proper to give to the Creator:

For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.

I will leave it mostly as an exercise to the reader what I believe of this text; what I will say is that I will understand if your conceptual framework has no place for statements like this except as one of the areas of the Bible that is not so much a strength to appreciate as something to gently refine.

The two points buried under all these words are first, that bringing up slavery as the place to get our bearings in understanding the Bible is highly significant, and second, that there’s something going on in the text that egalitarianism has no place for and is apt to misfile because it has no place to receive it.


My advisor wrote:

But it left me wondering:

* Are you saying we shouldn’t make allowance for greater ignorance in the past? We are no more intelligent now, but we do have better understanding about medicine, geology, astronomy etc. This affects the way we interpret things like “the moon turned to blood” – which we would now regard as an atmospheric phenomenon and nothing to do with the nature of the moon.

I wrote:

The assumptions that frame this question are part of what I was trying to answer in “Religion and Science” Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution. That treats the religion-science question at interesting and arguably provocative length; beyond the link, I’d like to respond briefly.

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.”

To put things differently, my advisor could be paraphrased, “Look, we’ve progressed! We have a more scientific understanding of some things!”

My response rejects the modern doctrine of progress: I don’t believe we’ve progressed, and in particular the fact that we are more scientific is not the same as moral progress. In fact, the case may be that when we have moved to a more scientific outlook it has led us to lose sight of things that are foundational to Christian faith: “Religion and Science” Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution explains how exactly being more scientific may not be good for theology.


I wrote:

There was one other point I would like to venture, in terms of how things fit together:

Jerry Root wrote a monograph from his dissertation, C.S. Lewis and a Problem of Evil, arguing that C.S. Lewis made an objectivist critique of subjectivism and that this is a major thread through multiple works across decades and arguably could be called the common theme. All of Lewis’s fiction, or at least the samples quoted from before he was a Christian (“Dymer”) onwards, have villains who are ascribed subjectivist rhetoric.

Root is himself an egalitarian, which I need to say in fairness, although his egalitarian argument smells faintly subjectivistic, along with a silence that speaks rather loudly: he never intimates that the message of the Un-man in Perelandra might in fact be almost unadulterated subjectivism and a gospel of feminism and that these are arguably not two separate things, at least in the narrative.

I have a friend who is a silver-haired, balding counselor, and tried really hard to help me prepare for my Ph.D. program (which blew up anyway, but I can’t fault his help or any defect in his help). He spoke appreciatively of his training in gay theology (he is a conservative Orthodox and was not trying to convert me to queer agendas), and the biggest single point he tried to make, as something I would have trouble understanding, was subjectivism in relation to feminism.

One of the things he told me that I wouldn’t understand was the kind of thing that was illustrated in this: there is a hardcore academic feminist camp that insists that all male celibacy is a tool of patriarchal oppression, and there is a hardcore academic feminist camp that insists that all heterosexual intercourse is rape, and these camps coexist without particular conflict. The objectivist says, “Wait a minute, unless at least one of these is at least partly wrong, or there is an imperative for all men to be homosexually active (or doing something more creative), there is no course open that would let a male live without being a sex offender,” is in a very real sense intruding with something foreign onto the scene: objectivism that says there is a reality we should seek to conform to, however imperfectly we may do so.

Biblical egalitarianism is often not so pronounced; I doubt many, or even any, of the egalitarians at Wheaton College make any claim of comparable feminist extremity. But the subjectivism is there, and my thesis could be described as an analysis of how subjectivists argue when straight argument won’t get them where they want to go—and every single treatment of the passage from a Biblical Egalitarian/feminist that we looked at for a comparison study had the same shady argument; I have yet to see a Biblical Egalitarianism treatment of the passage on husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 that argues in objectivist fashion; every one of the dozens of cases I’ve seen argues with sophistry out of a subjectivism that is unwilling to conform to the reality studied.

I wrote about the connection more explicitly in point 24 of From Russia, with Love; that explains concretely and more descriptively what it would mean for feminism and egalitarianism to be intertwined with subjectivism.

I know Jerry Root and probably should have called him Jerry instead of Root the second time. I sat in on one of his classes once, to observe before teaching (he is considered a legendary professor in the community), and as a C.S. Lewis scholar quoted Lewis as he said, “Satan is without doubt nothing else than a hammer in the hand of a benevolent and severe God. For all, either willingly or unwilly, do the will of God: Judas and Satan as tools or instruments, John and Peter as sons.” He then said, communicating with great warmth, “and I would add, ‘or daughters'” and said that women were included in the great company of those who do God’s will as children of God and not as mere tools.

In my role as a visitor, as a fly on the wall, I held my tongue on saying, “You’re not adding to the text, you’re taking away from it.” By saying that he was adding that the text could apply to women, he was retroactively redefining the text, when no sane reader, even a sane reader who prefers to use explicitly gender-neutral terms when the intent does not include specifying gender, would read Lewis’s text as saying that males like Peter and John could do God’s will the good way but by definition Mary the Mother of God and Mary Magdalene the Apostle to the Apostles could not.

Do I really believe Jerry believed that, or intended that in anyone he addressed?

The rhetoric is too subjectivist for that.


My advisor wrote:

Your emails are interesting though, as you say, they have gone down paths which you were particularly interested in.

The main question I had was:

Blessed is the man who … (Ps.1)
If a brother sins against you… (Lk.17.3)
God made man in his own image, … male and female he made them (Gen.1.27)

How would you translate them into modern English so that a reader wouldn’t get the wrong impression about what the message is?

My guess, from what you’ve said, is that you don’t think English has changed, and you don’t think that anyone would get the wrong message except hard-line feminists who would intentionally misread the text.

On Ps.1 you point out the Christological interpretation, which I recognise, though I wouldn’t say it is the primary meaning of the text. One of the wonderful things about Jesus was that he DID associate with sinners, though without becoming one of them.

I fear that English has changed, whether we like it or not, and modern readers need some help, or else they will think the Bible is exclusivist.


I wrote:

I believe English has changed, but you assert forcefully that when the text says “man” it cannot refer to women, fullstop, in the modern reader’s mind. I would take that as a rhetorical overstatement, but even if it is a rhetorical overstatement, it suggests that you have been getting your bearings from egalitarians for whom “inclusive” language is an active priority, whether this is a conscious or unconscious effort. Compared to other Christians, especially outside academic circles, I would expect you have a disproportionately high number of friends and contacts who are members of CBE or share significant sympathies.

(You can fairly say that at least in academic circles I have a disproportionately low number of such friends, and a disproportionately higher number of friends who would critique CBE, and I would say I am not middle of the road for the friends I know.)

English, especially among the learned, has changed, and “man” is less likely to be read as simply referring to people in general. But it is a strong position to say that “if a brother sins against you”, in a passage whose plain sense gives “brother” a much more expansive sense than the biological, will be read only as referring to males. And strictly speaking, at least two of your points contain the same logical fallacy as saying that “All taxicabs are vehicles” demands, if taken literally, that “Because a truck is not a taxicab it cannot be a vehicle”. “If a brother sins against you” if taken to exclude women cannot logically imply “sisters can’t sin.” “In the image of God he created him” if taken not to refer to Eve cannot logically imply “Women are not created in the image of God.” You take an extreme interpretation and position, perhaps partly to rhetorically underscore a point, but with what I think are appropriate allowances for rhetorical overstatement, I believe you take a change that has occurred partially to be full and absolute.

The story of the TNIV does not commend the reading that the change is simply bringing the language of the translation in sync with the language on the street. The argument that this needs to be further imported to Bible translations has something of a whiff of the offensive, “The bureaucracy is expanding… to meet the needs of an expanding bureaucracy!”

N.B. The reference to the TNIV (Today’s New International Version) is essentially as follows: The NIV (New International Version), like many other translations, has been updated and revised over time. The people in charge of the NIV, as one update, were going to change to inclusive language. There was an enormous outcry that ended in the people in charge of the NIV signing an agreement not to convert the NIV to use inclusive language. And after making that commitment in writing, they still left the NIV available but made an inclusive language version of the NIV and renamed it “Today’s New International Version.”

For the claim, “English has changed”, the argument is that perhaps in the past readers may have read “man” and “brother” as fully inclusive of women, but we need to use (belabored) inclusive language now because things have changed.

The position taken is that we need to move from the older style of naturally inclusive language, to explicit (and belabored) inclusive language, to adjust to the fact that we are in the process of moving from naturally inclusive language to a belabored inclusive language. We should stop using “man” in an inclusive sense because we are stopping using “man” in an inclusive sense. The bureaucracy is expanding… to meet the needs of an expanding bureaucracy! We must work harder at political correctness to meet the needs of an expanding political correctness.


My advisor wrote:

It sounds like I have trodden on your toes – I’m very sorry.

In the English of most newspapers and blogs, a “man” is male, a “woman” is female and a “person” can be either.

In my original question, I recognised the value of literal translations for those who know the Bible well.
But I was wondering how you would translate such example passages for friends who aren’t Christian, or for people who pick up a Bible in their hotel room – ie those who haven’t ever heard of CBE or other such groups, and who don’t know that “man” can mean both male and female in the Bible.


I wrote:

Well, that depends somewhat on audience. If I am aiming for the chattering classes as my audience, I would probably follow the rule, “Unless it is your specific extent to exclude half of humanity from any possible consideration, use strictly and explicitly gender-neutral language.”

But when I step outside the bubble of those classes, and overhear working-class people talking, “If you see someone, tell them…” melts away and leaves “If you see someone, tell him…” The experience of “he” and “him” as essentially “exclusive” language is common with the bubble we live in but far from absolute, and that matter far from common, in this U.S., where I believe your concerns have made more headway than in the U.K. If we are talking “people who pick up a Bible in their hotel room”, we have left the realm of educated people who read the Bible as literature, and we are talking truckers and the unwashed masses–you know, the kind of people who furnished some of the twelve disciples. And there the answer is simple: say “he” when your intent is generic; saying “they” for one person sounds weird and part of a foreign world intruding on normal English.

And this may be drifting slightly, but if the question is, “How do we render ‘If a brother sins against you’ so that the full sense of the Church as a family and rebukes within that community comes across,” I don’t know, and I am wary of the question and approach. Certainly part of it may be more explicit in rendering “If a brother or a sister sins against you”–or, if you don’t mind making things even harder for truckers opening a Bible in a hotel room, “If a sibling sins against you”–but more broadly the choice of ‘brother’ in Greek bears a wealth of layers that are hard to translate so that all of them are apparent on first blush in English, a game which is very hard to win.

This is meant more as a confession of stupidity on my part than a boast, but at one point I tried to make my own Bible translation, called the Uncensored Bible, and aiming for clarity. There were a few highlights to it, and it rendered the Song of Songs clearly, or was intended to, like the original NIV before the higher-ups vetoed translating the Song of Songs the same way they translated other books. And, though this is not intended as an inclusive language issue, the wordplay in Matthew 6:27 was rendered neither “Which of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” nor “Which of you by worrying can add a single cubit to his height?” but “Do you think you can add a single hour to your life by worrying? You might as well try to worry yourself into being a foot taller!”

But the work as a whole has pearls amidst sand, and it taught me chiefly that translating the Bible is a lot harder than I had given credit for, even knowing several languages and having done translation before. And while I partly succeeded, part of what I learned through that failure was that my idea of “Just make what is in the verse plainly simple” is a lot harder, and part of my naivete in the project was in trying to do that. Certainly it’s possible to be a little clearer where major translations deliberately obscure things from the unwashed masses, but the biggest thing I got out of it was recognizing I was doing something dumb, and coming to respect what the major translations accomplish a whole lot more.

But if that is the goal, “If a brother sins against you” is much harder to get across than changing “If a brother” to “If a brother or sister”, “If a sister or brother”, “If a sibling”, etc. because “brother” speaks of the Church as a family and frames the situation not as discussing appropriate rebuke of someone who you are not particularly connected to, but appropriate rebuke within one tightly connected fatherhood or family. And the expansiveness of “brother” is perhaps 10% clarified, and 90% not clarified, by including the word “sister” or going for the gelding option of “sibling”.

So I would partly say, “I don’t know”, and you can call it a dodge if you want, but if your goal is to make what is going on in the text clear to most readers, especially outside academia and the chattering classes, you might or might not get 10% of the way there by explicitly making language more gender-inclusive, but if you do so, don’t say, “Mission accomplished,” because the large part of making “If a brother sins against you” accessible in translation is not accomplished once the translation is clear in applying both to men and women.

The rhetorical posture is taken, “The person I’m really concerned about is the person on the street, the average blue-collar Joe or Jane. What about ordinary people who don’t have all this academic knowledge?”

I answer quite simply, “Don’t worry; that large demographic is probably the one least affected by political correctness and least likely to hear ‘Women are excluded’ if they read a Bible that says ‘man’ or ‘brother’.”


My advisor wrote:

It looks like we both want to educate people to understand the Bible and then translate it literally, because it is so hard to translate it to be understood without that education.

Your decision to use the second person instead of third person is often done in gender-neutral translations, and it works sometimes (such as the example you gave), but not always. I wish we had a neutral pronoun.

Ah well, we have to live with imperfection.


My advisor wrote:

It looks like we both want to educate people to understand the Bible and then translate it literally, because it is so hard to translate it to be understood without that education.

I wrote:

Something like that; it is a difficult matter.

Your decision to use the second person instead of third person is often done in gender-neutral translations, and it works sometimes (such as the example you gave), but not always. I wish we had a neutral pronoun.

Ah well, we have to live with imperfection.

In many ways. My attempt at translation taught me that even more than it taught me I was dumber than I thought.


Of vinyl records, black and white photography, and using naturally inclusive language

Belabored “inclusive” language is here to stay, the rhetoric for it is here to stay, and English usage has changed. I can hardly contest any of these claims, but I would make a point.

When I was a child, it appeared that black and white film had been permanently superseded by color film for all mainstream personal use, and I watched vinyl records be superseded by CD’s, pure and simple. Black and white photography outside of Official Art Photography by Real Fine Art Photographers was obsolete now that we had advanced to color film, and a big record player was a waste of space.

But something funny has happened since then—the “improvements” are not so final as one might think. It is not just Official Art Photographers who make those obsolete monochrome photographs; there is an increasing appreciation for black and white photography, to the point that color digital cameras take pictures and extra work is done to make monochrome photographs, either black and white or sepia. And while digital audio isn’t going away anytime soon, the more an audiophile really, really cares about music and really, really cares about the sound that is rendered, the more likely he is to explicitly prefer the live sound from good vinyl records and a good record player with a good needle to the tinny and more mediocre sound of even the best digital audio.

I said above, partly to avoid pressing a point, “educated people who read the Bible as literature,” giving the impression that the Bible as literature crowd will obviously use inclusive language translations. But there’s something really funny going on here. Educated liberals who read the Bible as literature normally use inclusive language. Educated liberals who read the Bible as literature normally believe in inclusive language. And, in my contacts, educated liberals who read the Bible as literature pass over every inclusive language Bible translation for the majesty of the King James Version. With its naturally inclusive language.

“Man” has taken something of the tint of a sepia image, and hearing language like “humankind” sounds like the tinny mediocrity of a CD to an audiophile who prefers vinyl: the point gets across, but not the way vinyl allows.

Inclusive language efforts have given the traditional language of “man”, “brother”, and “mankind” a share of the beauty and poetic force of sepia and vinyl.

What’s wrong with the emails above

I’ve written these emails with a growing sense that there is something wrong with them: a sense that there was something inescapably misleading even when the observations were accurate. After a while I put a finger on what bothered me. These observations may be accurate observations of truths (or maybe just politically incorrect). But they are not a drinking of Truth. They fall short of the Sermon on the Mount:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Do you think that by worrying you can add a single hour to your span of life? You might as well try to worry you way into being a foot taller? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?

The observations above are the equivalent of careful, meticulous observations about how to run after food and clothing when there is a Kingdom of God to seek after. Food and clothing have their place, and the observations I made could have a place in the ascetical life, but they are not what there is to seek first, and true Biblical manhood and womanhood come not from trying to be complementarian but from seeking wholeheartedly for the Kingdom of God and his perfect righteousness, and letting all else fall into its place.

Let us seek the greater good.

The Sign of the Grail

Cover for The Sign of the Grail

George had finally gotten through the first week at Calix College, and the chaos was subsiding. Bored for a minute, and too exhausted from the busy work to start researching something, he sat down, tried to remember something strange that he meant to investigate, and tried some more.

When he finally gave up and tried to think about what else he could do, he remembered a book he had seen in his closet, perhaps left over by a previous resident. He pulled out a fan and a lamp that were placed on it, and pulled out a large book. The entire leather cover had only eleven letters, and the dark leather showed signs of wear but seemed to be in remarkably good condition. The golden calligraphy formed a single word: Brocéliande. All across the front lay dark, intricate leather scrollwork.

What was “Brocéliande?” After looking at the leather and goldwork a short while, George opened Brocéliande and read:

The knight and the hermit wept and kissed together, and the hermit did ask, “Sir knight, wete thou what the Sign of the Grail be?”

The knight said, “Is that one of the Secrets of the Grail?”

“If it be one of the Secrets of the Grail, that is neither for thee to ask nor to know. The Secrets of the Grail are very different from what thou mightest imagine in thine heart, and no man will get them by looking for secrets. But knowest thou what the Sign of the Grail be?”

“I never heard of it, nor do I know it.”

“Thou wete it better than thou knowest, though thou wouldst wete better still if thou knewest that thou wete.”

“That be perplexed, and travail sore to understand.”

The hermit said, “Knowest thou the Sign of the Cross?”

“I am a Christian and I know it. It is no secret amongst Christians.”

“Then know well that the sacred kiss, the kiss of the mass, even if it be given and received but once per year, is the Sign of the Grail.”

“How is that? What makes it such as I have never heard?”

“I know that not in its fullness. Nor could I count reasons even knew I the fullness of truth. But makest thou the Sign of the Cross when thou art alone?”

“Often, good hermit; what Christian does not?”

“Canst thou make the Sign of the Grail upon another Christian when thou art alone?”

George’s cell phone rang, and he closed the book and ran to hear the call better. When he came back, though he spent an hour searching, he could not find his place in the heavy book. He turned outside.

There were a lot of people, but what he saw was the castle-like stonework of the campus, the timeworn statues, and finally the great wood with its paths, streams, and meadows. He got lost several times, but not truly lost, as he was exploring and finding interesting places no less when he lost his sense of direction. The next time he found his way, he went to the cafeteria and sat down at a table, part listening and part sifting through thoughts.

When he got home, his mind was hungry again, and he opened Brocéliande to the middle:

Merlin howled.

“Lord of Heaven and Earth, I have everything I want, or rather everything I fled to. I have left the city and the company of men, and am become as a wild beast, living on grass and nuts.

“Is this because of whose son I am? Some say I have powers from my father, serving the Light only because the prayers spoken when some learned of that dread project. Yet here outside of castle and city I have learned things hidden from most men. I can conjure up a castle from the air, but not enter and live in one: I live in the wood as a man quite mad.”

Then he looked around. The trees were a verdant green, yet he found apples. Presently he came to the fountain of Brocéliande; he rang not the bell but drew deep and drank a draught. The forest were his labyrinth and his lair.

A hawk came and set him on the branch close up.

Merlin said to it, “Yet I can speak with thee: no element is a stranger to me.”

A sound of footsteps sounded, and Merlin ran not away.

Merlin his sister Ganeida laid a hand on Merlin his arm. “Come, Merlin. This is unworthy. I have brought thee food for a journey: King Arthur summoneth thee to his court.”

Merlin beheld the wood called Brocéliande. He beheld its holly, its ivy, its trees shaken by storm and wind. He thought of the animals. And there was something about this forest that drew him: it seemed larger on the inside than the outside, and there was something alway that seemed shining through it, like faint and haunting music which he had by struggles learned to catch as he withdrew from castles and the world of men.

Then Ganieda did start to sing a different song, a plain and simple folk tune, and Merlin his heart settled, and he did walk with his sister.

George slowly closed the book.

He imagined the scene; there was something about Merlin that haunted and eluded him. There was—

There was a knock on the door.

He opened it. It was one of the people from dinner.

“Do you want to see a movie?”

“What movie?”

“We’re still deciding. But there are a few of us going to the theater.”

George thought for a moment. Up until that point he thought he didn’t want to read more of the book for now. When he declined the invitation, there was a fleeting insight which he forgot the next moment.

The next day in class, the figure of Merlin had a stronger grip on his imagination.

If George had less energy, his classes might have suffered more. As it was, he was getting by, and he slowly began to realize that there was something more that gripped him than horses, swords, and armor. He kept opening more to see the beautiful fantasy, so different from his world. At one point he turned the page:

Then Queen Guinevere did sigh and wept sore.

A lady asked, “Milady, what is it?”

“This Grail cometh even now. Is it accursed?

“The Round Table shattered sore hard and knights return with strange tales. Such a holy thing this Grail is called, yet when it cometh the rich Grail yet burneth like fire. Already King Arthur his work is unraveling.

“Will it even take from me my Sir Lancelot? Or can I take even my Lancelot from the Holy Grail?”

There was something in the back of George’s mind. He sat back, thinking, and then closed the book to make a brief visit to the unspoilt beauty of the wood.

When he went in, he noticed a great beech tree, lying, weeping. It seemed that there was something trying to get out of the verdure. There were ferns and moss around, and he walked and walked. The path took many turns, and George began to realize several things. First, it was dark. Second, he was lost. Third, a chill was setting in. Fourth, he could not see even the stars.

Before long he was running in heavy, icy rain, branches lashing, until a branch hitting his chest winded him. He sat down in stinging pain and regained his breath, then felt around and crawled beneath an outcropping. Here the rain at least would not get to him any more. He spent the night in waking shock at what this great pristine nature, unsullied by human contamination, was really like: the forest seemed to be without reason or order right down to the awkward surface of the rock that he was painfully lying on. Long-forgotten fears returned: when a little light broke through the clouds, were those things he saw rocks, fallen trees, or goblins? He spent a long time shivering, and when the sun rose, he thirsted for light, and got up, only half awake, and followed it until he came to the edge of the forest and saw the castle-inspired buildings of the college. A short while later he was warming up with a welcome blanket and the welcome sound of voices in conversation.

Something was eating away at the back of George’s mind.

Perhaps because of his weariness, his attention in class was chiefly on the flicker of the fluorescent light and how the buildings, which on the outside were so evocative of castles, were so modern on the inside. The one thing that caught his mind was a set of comments about either how we must be individuals and do our own thing or else we are all community and individuality is an illusion. He wanted to be haunted and meet hints of a larger world, and others’ passionately held opinions seemed like they were taken from Newsweekand USA Today.

What was on TV? He stopped in the lobby and saw a show with a medieval set, very carefully done to convey a medieval flavor, and watched until a heroine looked at a magical apparition in a full-length mirror and said, “I am having… a biochemical reaction!” He could not explain what failed to confront him, but he walked out. It was Freya’s Day, commonly shortened to “Friday.” When he learned how the days of the week were named, for Norse gods or celestial bodies—namely, Sun’s Day, Moon’s Day, Tiw’s Day, Wotan’s Day, Thor’s Day, Freya’s Day, and Saturn’s Day—something seemingly pedestrian met him with a touch of a larger world. Now, it seemed, things that looked like they could tell of a larger world confronted him with the utterly pedestrian?

His homework did not take long.

Then, amidst Bon Jovi blaring through the hall, George began read. What he was reading seemed to affect him more like a song would than a story: a lullabye almost. He read of Arthur walking into battle, carrying an icon of the Virgin above him. There were mighty blows, armies with their mounted shock troops, great knights clothed in chainmail hauberks astride elephantine destriers, and in the center Arthur holding what seemed to be a story within a story, an icon that opened out onto something larger, and yet something he could not see in his mind’s eye.

Then at another place he read as Arthur crossed land and sea and placed his sword on the ground and claimed a second Britain, and then gave of his knights, his brothers, and his substance to make a place like Great Britain, with forests and orchards, fields and towns, until he had given what he could of his spirit to make a Little Britain.

George looked through and began to see things weaving in and out: an intensity, a concentration, and not just that he was entering another time but he was entering another time, though he could not tell how it was different: he only sensed that time moved differently, and that his watch told something very different.

Then all of this seemed to crystallize as a grievously wounded Sir Lancelot came to an hospitable knight and Elaine his daughter spent endless time healing his wounds. Love so overwhelmed her that she poured herself out with such intensity that when Lancelot left for the only woman he could love, her body emptied of spirit and life floated on a bier in a boat until Arthur’s court wept at the most piteous tale of her love. George found himself wishing he could weep.

—over hill, over dale until the night was black, and neither candle nor star pierced it. The great knight his destrier shook the earth. The great knight was clad in a double coat of mail and the shaft of his greater spear was as a weaver’s beam. Then he did stop to dismount and his own steps shook the earth.

Before him was a chalice of purest gold, radiant with light—radiant as the day. He walked before it, his steps shook the earth, and he stood taller than ever he did stand, until his hand grasped it.

The light blazed brighter and a voice in the air spake, “Lancelot, Lancelot, why mockest thou me?” The light blazed, and Sir Lancelot fell against the ground in tremors, and his horse fled far away in terror.

Then Sir Lancelot spake a question which I will not tell you.

The voice answered with words not lawful for man to write, and the pure gold chalice vanished and the light with it.

The knight wist not why he ran, and later he awoke him in a strange place where there were neither man nor beast in sight.

George closed the book. He had been reading for a long time, he told himself. What was there to do?

He looked around the school website for clubs and organizations, and none of the many things people were doing caught his eye. He walked around the campus, looking at the buildings. He went to the library and wandered around the bookshelves, and picked up a few items but set them down. Then he returned to his room and sat down for a while.

He was bored for the rest of the day.

That night, as he dreamed, he saw a castle, and walked into it. Whenever he looked at his body, he saw what looked like his ordinary clothing, and yet he believed he was wearing armor. He walked through hallways, chambers, the great hall, even dungeons, trying to see what he was searching for. At last he was in a room where he heard people, and smelt something ineffable. He caught a glimpse of a chalice that he could not see, yet he sensed its silhouette, bathed in indescribable light on either side, and he saw light rising above its core. But he never succeeded in seeing it.

He awoke from the strain to see it. He heard birdsong, and the fingers of the light of the dawn were brushing against his face.

Something crystallized in George’s mind, and he did not need to tell himself, “I am on a quest.”

The next day he went into the city to look around in the medieval institute, and tried to see what was there. He managed to walk at a brisk pace, almost run, through the museum, and was nervous over whether he would get out by the time he had to leave to catch dinner. Nothing caught his eye; nothing seemed interesting; everything seemed good only for a glimpse.

There was something eating at him.

During the next week, George discovered online reproduction sword dealers and looked at the perfectly machined character of the many closeup images available online. He didn’t buy anything, but after the week thinking and failing to find other places, George returned to the museum. Maybe there was something he had missed.

He stopped at the first sword.

The sword, or what was left of it, looked like it had been eaten by worms, if that were possible. The deeply pitted surface intrigued him; it had all the surface of the complexity of a rock, and he thought that if he could take a magnifying glass or a zoomed-in camera lens to this or that part, it could pass for the intricate surface of a volcanic rock.

The handle didn’t look right at all. It was a thin square rod connecting a thick blade and a thicker pommel, and seemed the very definition of “ergonomically incorrect,” as if it had been designed to gouge the wearer’s hand or generate blisters. It held for George something of the fascination of a car wreck. Why on earth had the museum put such a poor-quality specimen on display?

Then he read the rather large plaque.

The plaque read:

This sword was excavated in what is now Cornwall in Great Britain and dates to the 5th or 6th century AD. It is considered to be remarkably well-preserved, being one of few such finds to be straight and in one solid piece, the metal part lacking only a handguard, and is one of this museum’s prized holdings and one of the most valuable gifts from an anonymous donor. The handle, of which only the metal tang remains, was probably wood or possibly other organic materials.

Think for a moment about the time and place this sword would have come from. Everything was made by hand, and there was little wealth: owning a sword would have been like owning a car today. Microscopic examination suggests that this sword was made for someone wealthy, as there are tiny fragments of gold embedded in the blade.

What was life like when nothing was made by machines or mass-produced and therefore things were more expensive and there was less you could buy? What was life when you could not travel faster than a horse and what we today call information could not travel faster than people? What would your life have been like when you would have probably been born, lived, and died within a few miles of the same spot? Life was hard.

But then look at the other side of the coin: can you think of anything people then would have had that you do not have today?

George looked at the sword, and tried to imagine it whole. At least he could tell what shape it suggested. And he tried to think about what the placard said, with none of the technologies he was used to. What would one do? Practice at swordplay? Wander in the forest?

George saw in his mind’s eye Sir Lancelot kneeling on one knee, his sword point in earth, his sword pointing down, taking an oath. Then George looked over the sword again and it looked like Lancelot’s sword: he imagined Sir Lancelot—or was it George?—laying his right hand on the sword and taking a mighty oath, and for a moment the sword in the museum took its full cruciform shape. And then as his eyes traced over the contours of the sword, it looked almost a relic, and he saw now one thing, now another: one scene fromBrocéliande gave way to another, and something tugged at his heart.

He tried to imagine a great feast given by King Arthur to his nobles. There was something of that feast right in front of him, and it seemed to suggest an unfolding pageant. Knights and Ladies dined with uproarious laughter, while minstrels sung enchanting ballads, and—

George realized someone was tapping on his shoulder. “Sir? Excuse me, but it’s time for you to leave.”

George turned and saw a security guard, and in puzzlement asked her, “Why? Have I done something wrong?”

She smiled and said, “You haven’t done anything wrong, but I’m sorry, the museum is now closing. Come back another day!”

George looked out a window and saw that the daylight had completely fled. He realized he was very hungry.

He left after briefly saying, “Thank-you.”

When he arrived home he was even hungrier, but even before he began eating he began looking through the same sites, selling swords.

None of them looked real to him.

After eating part of his meal, George opened Brocéliande, flipping from place to place until an illustration caught his eye. He read:

Merlin walked about in the clearing on the Isle of Avalon. To his right was the castle, and to his left was the forest. Amidst the birdsong a brook babbled, and a faint fragrance of frankincense flowed.

Sir Galahad walked out of the castle portal, and he bore a basket of bread.

Then Galahad asked Merlin about his secrets and ways, of what he could do and his lore, of his calling forth from the wood what a man anchored in the castle could never call forth. And Galahad enquired, and Merlin answered, and Galahad enquired of Merlin if Merlin knew words that were more words than our words and more mystically real than the British tongue, and then the High Latin tongue, and then the tongue of Old Atlantis. And then Galahad asked after anything beyond Atlantis, and Merlin’s inexhaustible fount ran dry.

Then Sir Galahad asked Merlin of his wood, of the stones and herbs, and the trees and birds, and the adder and the dragon, the gryphon and the lion, and the unicorn whom only a virgin may touch. And Merlin spake to him him of the pelican, piercing her bosom that her young may feed, and the wonders, virtues, and interpretation of each creature, until Galahad asked of the dragon’s head for which Uther had been called Uther Pendragon, and every Pendragon after him bore the title of King and Pendragon. Merlin wot the virtue of the dragon’s body, but of the dragon’s head he wot nothing, and Sir Galahad spake that it was better that Merlin wist not.

Then Sir Galahad did ask Merlin after things of which he knew him nothing, of what was the weight of fire, and of what is the end of natural philosophy without magic art, and what is a man if he enters not in the castle, and “Whom doth the Grail serve?”, and of how many layers the Grail hath. And Merlin did avow that of these he wist not none.

Then Merlin asked, “How is it that you are wise to ask after these all?”

Then Galahad spake of a soft voice in Merlin his ear and anon Merlin ran into the wood, bearing bread from the castle.

George was tired, and he wished he could read more. But he absently closed the book, threw away what was left of his hamburgers and fries, and crawled into bed. It seemed but a moment that he was dreaming.

George found himself on the enchanted Isle of Avalon, and it seemed that the Grail Castle was not far off.

George was in the castle, and explored room after room, entranced. Then he opened a heavy wooden door and found himself facing the museum exhibit, and he knew he was seeing the same 5th-6th century sword from the Celtic lands, only it looked exactly like a wall hanger sword he had seen online, a replica of a 13th century Provençale longsword that was mass produced, bore no artisan’s fingerprints, and would split if it struck a bale of hay. He tried to make it look like the real surface, ever so real, that he had seen, but machined steel never changed.

Then George looked at the plaque, and every letter, every word, every sentence was something he could read but the whole thing made no sense. Then the plaque grew larger and larger, until the words and even letters grew undecipherable, and he heard what he knew were a dragon’s footprints and smelled the stench of acrid smoke. George went through room and passage until the noises grew louder, and chanced to glance at a pool and see his reflection.

He could never remember what his body looked like, but his head was unmistakably the head of a dragon.

George sat bolt upright on his bunk, awake in a cold sweat, and hit his head on the ceiling.

The next day, George went to the medieval history library that was almost at the center of the campus, housed in a white limestone tower with one timeworn spire, and intricately woven with passages like rabbit holes. The librarian was nowhere in sight, and owing to his eccentricities the library still had only a paper card catalog, emanating a strange, musty aroma. George started to walk towards it, before deciding to wander around the shelves and get a feel for things medieval. The medieval history librarian was rumored to be somewhat eccentric, and insisted on a paper card catalog with no computers provided, which many of the students said might as well have been medieval.

His first read traced the development of symbol from something that could not give rise to science to something that apparently paved the way in that a symbol and what it refers to were no longer seen as connected. It seemed hard to follow, some where the argument was obscure and even more when he followed the reasoning: he grasped it and grasped it not. As he read, he read of the cultivation of cabbages and tales of kings, and whether grotesques could let pigs have wings. He read of boys doing the work of men and men who acted like boys, of children who asked for bread and their fathers would give them stones in their bread, of careful historians ages before the great discovery of history and classicists preserving the ancient life after the ancient life met its demise, of strange things that turned familiar and yet familiar things turned strange, of time becoming something a clock could measure, of those who forged, those who plagiarized, and arguments today why no medieval author should be accused of plagiarism for what he copied, and yet he read of a world where few died of old age and minor cuts and illnesses could kill. He read of the problem of underpopulation, the challenge of having enough births, and untold suffering when there were not enough people.

Yet to speak this way is deceptive, because all these wonders and more were made pedestrian. The more he studied, the fewer wonders he met, or at least the fewer wonders he could find, and the more he met a catalog of details. He read the chronicles of kings and those seeking what could be recovered through them, and however much he read King Arthur was not mentioned once. Though he spent weeks searching in the library, the haunting beauty of Brocéliande had been rare to begin with and now he wot of it not none.

And the fruitless search for the history of Arthur led him to knock on the librarian’s door.

“I’m in a bad mood. Leave me alone!”

“Please.”

“You can come in if you must, but you would be better off leaving.”

“I’ve looked all over and found neither hide nor hair of a book on King Arthur. Does this library have nothing on him?”

“King Arthur? No, not this part of the library; look in the appropriate sections on the electronic card catalog in the regular library.”

“But I want to know the history of Arthur.”

“The history of King Arthur?!? What can you possibly mean?”

“I had been reading about King Arthur outside the library.”

“The general library has a number of the original sources, along with more literary criticism than one person can possibly read, and what little the history of literature knows about more and less obscure authors. And our literature department has several renowned scholars on Arthurian literature. But why are you trying to find King Arthur in a medieval history library? That’s as silly as looking for the history of the animals in Aesop’s fables.”

“You don’t believe in Arthur?”

“No, I don’t. Though I could be wrong. A lot of scholars, wrong as they may be, believe there was an Arthur around the 6th century, a warrior owning a horse, though the consensus is that he was not a king. These—”

“So Arthur was a knight and not a king?!?”

“No, he wasn’t a knight. He couldn’t have been. If there ever was such a person.”

“But you said he had a horse and—”

“You’re making a basic historical mistake if you’re imagining a warrior then, even one with a horse, as a ‘knight‘. It would like a historian five or six centuries from now studying our technology, and knowing that Saint Thomas Aquinas was an author, imagining him doing Google searches and composing, in Latin of course, on his computer’s word processor.

“Warriors owned horses, but stirrups hadn’t reached Arthur’s supposed land, and without a stirrup it is almost impossible to fight while mounted. A horse was a taxi to get a warrior to battle to fight on foot like everybody else, and nothing more. A warrior with a horse was a warrior with a better taxi to get to the scene of battle. A knight, on the most material level, is an almost invincible mounted shock troop compared to the defenseless-as-children so-called ‘infantry.’ And then you have the ideal, almost the mythos, of chivalry that developed about these mighty brutal warriors.

“The Arthurian legends were never even close to history to begin with, even if they hadn’t grown barnacles on top of barnacles, like… a bestseller with too many spinoffs. All the versions have their own anachronisms, or rather the earlier versions are nothing like anachronisms, projecting a legendary past for the kind of knight that was then becoming fashionable. You have a late medieval Sir Thomas Mallory fitting knights with plate armor that would have been as anachronous for an Arthur of the 5th or 6th century to wear as it would have been for a knight of Mallory’s day to be equipped with today’s Kevlar version of a bulletproof vest.

“I don’t think it’s a particularly big deal for there to be anachronisms; the idea that anachronism is a problem is a complete anachronism in evaluating medieval literature; saying that Chrétien de Troyes built an anachronous social ideal is as silly as complaining that the accounts of animals in a medieval bestiary are not doing the same job in the same way as a scientific biology textbook. Of course they aren’t, but you’re being equally silly to read a medieval bestiary as something that should be empirical scientific biology.

“Of course, getting back to anachronism, Mallory has guns which—”

“Guns?!? Machine guns? Handguns? Rifles?” George said.

“Nothing fancy, just early cannon, not a modern assault rifle. But there are none the less guns in the pivotal late medieval version of the story, which had Arthur’s son and nephew, Mordred, besieging—”

“Which one was Mordred, and what was the other one’s name?” George said.

“‘Which one’? What do you mean…” The librarian said, pausing. “Aah, you get it. For that matter, the stories tend to include endless nobles whose family tree is, like a good nobility family tree, more of a family braid, and—”

It was around then that the conversation became something that George remembered with the confused memory of a dream. He knew that the librarian had explained something, but the closest he could come to remembering it was a discussion of how networked computers as the next generation of computing contributed to a unique medieval synthesis, or what actually seemed to make more sense of the shape of that “memory,” the sound of an elephant repeatedly ramming stone walls.

What he remembered next was walking—walking through the library, walking around campus, walking through the forest, and then…

Had he been asked, he might have been collected enough to say that this was the first time in a long while he was not on a quest.

What was he doing now?

Was he doing anything?

Where was George?

He was lost, although that didn’t register on his mind. Or perhaps he wasn’t lost, if “lost” means not only that you don’t know where you are, but that you wish you knew.

George was in the city somewhere, if that was where he was. A great forest of steel, glass, and brick. Some was adorned by graffiti, other bits by ugly paint. This was definitely not the castle to him, but the wild wood, much more the wild wood than what was merely a place with many trees and few buildings. What made the wood a wood and not like a castle, anyway?

George looked around. In front of him was a boarded-up restaurant. The sign said, “Closed for minor renovations. REOPENING SOON.” Its paint looked chipped and timeworn, and from what he could see looking in the dirty windows, it was dusty inside. What, exactly, did the menu say? George could see the menu, and some pictures of what was probably supposed to be food, but even though he was on the edge of hunger, the hazy blurs did nothing to make his mouth water.

George walked a good distance further, and saw the bright colors of a store, and heard music playing. He wandered in.

Inside, the store was bustling with activity. Just inside, there was a demonstration of electronic puppies: an employee was showing the puppy off. On a whim, George walked over.

The young woman was saying words commands which the puppy sometimes did not respond to. She handed it to children to pet, who responded with exuberant warmth. But the more George watched the scene, the more the whole scene seemed off-kilter.

The puppies were cute, but there seemed to be something much less cute when they moved. What was it? The puppy’s animation seemed neither like a cute stuffed animal nor like a toy robot. It seemed like a robot in a puppy costume, but the effect was… almost vampiric.

Then George looked at the employee again. She was quite attractive, but her smile and the exaggerated energy for her role… reminded George of makeup almost covering dark circles under someone’s eyes.

He ducked into an aisle. Below were not only unflavored dental floss and mint floss, but many different kinds of floss in all different colors, thicknesses, and several different flavors. But the choices in the actual floss were dwarfed by the choices in the cases: purple-and-pink containers of floss for preteen girls, larger rough-looking containers made of dark stonelike plastic for a man’s man, and sundry groups—including trainers for babies who were still teething. George saw a sign above a display that said, “We bring you the freedom TO CHOOSE!”

He tried not to think about sledgehammers. He tried.

George was looking for a reason to stay in the store. There was eye-catching color everywhere, and he saw a section of posters, and started flipping through art posters, looking for something to buy, until he saw the sign above the posters. It said, “Priceless masterpieces from the greatest museums of the world, conveniently made available to you in American standard poster size and format, for only $4.99 each.”

Somehow the store’s showmanlike displays seemed a bit hollow. George left.

George wandered out, something not quite clicking in his mind. He knocked on the building next door, and a voice said, “Just a minute; come in.” He opened the door and saw a sight in shadows. A man was heading out a door. “As soon as I’ve finished taking out the trash and washed my hands, I can help you.”

A short while later, the man emerged. “Hi. I’m Fr. Elijah.” He extended his hand, his head and hands standing out against the darkness and his dark robe, and shook George’s hand. George said, “I’m George.”

“What can I do for you?”

George stopped, and thought. He said, “I was just looking around while I was waiting for my thoughts to clear.”

Fr. Elijah said, “Are you a student?”

George said, “Yes.”

Fr. Elijah said nothing, but it did not seem he needed to say anything just then. George was growing calm.

“May I offer you something to drink? I was just going to make tea, and I don’t have a full range of soft drinks, but there should be something worth drinking. There’s a pitcher of ice-cold water if you don’t care for an old man’s coffee or tea.”

George said “Yes.”

“Wonderful. Come with me.” The two began walking, and they sat down.

George looked at him.

Fr. Elijah said, “Please sit down,” motioning to an armchair. “Did you want coffee, water, or tea? I have cookies. Oh, and there’s milk too.”

George smiled. “Could I have a chalice of milk?”

Fr. Elijah turned to get the cookies, a cup and some milk.

George said, “I meant to say a cup of milk. Sorry, I was trying to be a little more serious.”

Fr. Elijah said, “You can explain, or not explain. It’s your choice. But I think you were being serious. Just not the way you expected. But we can change the subject. Do you have a favorite book? Or has anything interesting happened to you lately? I can at least listen to you.”

George said, “I was just at the store nearby.”

Fr. Elijah asked, “What do you think of it?”

George said, “Are you sure you won’t be offended?”

Fr. Elijah said, “One of the things I have found in my work is that people can be very considerate about not being offensive, but sometimes I have something valuable to learn with things people think might offend me.”

“Ever wonder about the direction our society has headed? Or see something that left you wishing you could still wonder about that?”

“A lot of people do.”

“I was already having a bad day when I wandered into a store, and just when I thought things couldn’t get any more crass, they got more crass. I’ve just been invited to buy an identity with the help of a market-segment dental floss container.”

“You’re a man after my own heart. I’ve heard that the store manager has some pretty impressive connections. I’ve heard that if none of the dental floss containers in the store suit the identity you want to have, and you ask the manager, he can get your choice of floss in a custom container made by a sculptor to meet your whims!”

“But isn’t there more to life than that?”

“I certainly hope so! Oh, and did I mention that I’ve found that store an excellent place for important shopping for April Fools’ Day? I’m hoping to get my godson horribly artificial sugary-sweet tasting lacy pink floss in a container covered by red and white hearts and words like ‘Oochie-pooh.’ He’ll hit the roof! On second thought, he’ll be expecting such a gift… I should probably give it to him on what you’d consider August 12.”

“Why? What’s special about August 12?”

“That’s a bit of a labyrinth to sort out. Some Orthodox keep the old Julian calendar, while some keep the ‘new’ civil calendar, which means that those who preserve the old calendar, even if we manage not to go off in right field, are thirteen days ‘late’ for saints’ days, celebrating July 30, the Feast of Saint Valentine, on what you’d consider August 12. What you call Valentine’s Day is the Western celebration of the saint we celebrate on another day, and it’s a bit of a Western borrowing to use it for pseudo-romantic purposes to pick on my godson, as that saint’s feast did not pick up all the Western romantic connotations; Saint Valentine’s story is a typical story of a bishop who strengthened people against paganism and was martyred eventually. Every day is a feast of some sort, and every feast—that is, every day—has several saints to celebrate… but I’m going on and on. Have I confused you yet?”

“Um, ‘right field’? What does that mean?”

“Oops, sorry, personal expression. In the West people go out in left field and go loony liberal. In Orthodoxy, people go out in right field and go loony conservative. Some of the stuff I’ve been told would make me at least laugh if I didn’t want to cry so badly. Sorry, I’m rambling, and I was trying to hear you out when it looked like you’ve had a rough day, right up to a store telling you there was nothing more to hope for in life than things like dental floss with a container designed for your market segment. Let me let you change the subject.”

“Um, you’re probably wondering why I said, ‘chalice of milk.'”

“I would be interested in hearing that, but only if you want to tell. I have a guess, but I really don’t want you to feel obligated to say something you’d rather not.”

“What is your guess?”

“That you said ‘chalice of milk’ for an interesting reason that probably has an interesting connection to what, in life, you hope goes beyond the trivialities you were pushed into at that store. A chalice, whatever that means to you, is something deeper and richer.”

George opened his mouth, then closed it for a moment, and said, “Does a chalice mean anything to you?”

“Oh, yes. A chalice means quite a lot to me.”

“What does it mean to you?”

“George, have you ever seen a chalice?”

“No, but it’s pretty important in something I’ve read.”

“Would you like to see a chalice?”

“The chalice I’ve read about was made of purest gold. I’d imagine that if you have a fancy wine glass, maybe lead crystal, it would look poorer than what I’d imagine, and there are some things that are big enough that I’d rather not imagine.”

“Well, there are some things that are bigger than can be seen, and that includes a chalice. But the chalice I have—I can’t show it to you now—has the glint of gold, which has more layers than I can explain or know.”

“Is there a time you can show it to me?”

“Yes, come during the Divine Liturgy, and you can see the chalice from which I serve the Eucharist. I can’t explain—I know this offends some people, and I will understand if you are offended—that it would not be good for me to give you the Eucharist if you are not Orthodox. But you can see the chalice as it holds a treasure infinitely more valuable than its goldwork.”

“What is that?”

“The Eucharist.”

“Isn’t that just a symbol?”

“Hmm, there are six hundred ways to respond to that. I can get into some of the intricacies later. If you want. Or we need never talk about it. But…

“Saying the Eucharist is ‘just a symbol’ is as silly as saying that the Eucharist is ‘just the body and blood of Christ’. What else do you want it to be—a designer container of dental floss?”

George’s laugh was interrupted by a knock at a door. Fr. Elijah looked at his watch, and his face fell. He said, “Just when the conversation was getting interesting! I’m sorry; I have an appointment.”

George said, “Well, I won’t take any more of your time; I’ll come on Sunday. What time?”

“The Divine Liturgy starts at 9:00 Sunday morning; I’m sorry, that isn’t a very good time for college students. Arriving five minutes late isn’t a big deal. Most of the professors of campus can give you directions to my parish, the Church of the Holy Trinity. And bother that I have to end our talk!”

“That’s OK. Do you have some literature that you want to give me? Where are your pamphlets?”

“Hmm, that would take some time to explain, and I can explain later if you want. But I don’t have any pamphlets. If you want a book I can go to the library and you can borrow one. But Orthodox people don’t usually feel obligated to stuff your pockets with as much paper as we can and leave you walking away feeling guilty that you dread the prospect of reading it. Come back; I enjoyed talking with you, and if you want I can get something from the library. But only if you want. Please excuse me.” Fr. Elijah stood up and bowed slightly, but reverently, to George as they shook hands.

“Coming!” Fr. Elijah said. “I’m sorry; I was just trying to wrap up a conversation. Please come in. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you, and I’ve been looking forward to it.”

George stepped out, and walked out. He stopped by a window to look into the Church building again.

He could tell nothing that looked to him like a chalice, but everywhere was the glint of gold.

George wandered back with a spring in his step.

He returned home and opened Brocéliande, and read:

Blaise turned at a slow step. “Why callest thou thyself empty? Hast thou none, my son?”

Merlin answered him. “Forgive me, my master, my lord.”

The wind was deadly still.

Blaise turned even more fully. “What is it, my pupil?”

Merlin reached out his hand. A mighty wind blew, such as openeth doors that be closed and closeth doors that be open.

An apple tree shook of a violence and apples met their place on the humble earth, all apples did so which fell, save one which Merlin his hand did close upon it.

The wind blew and blew, stronger and stronger it blew, and Blaise looked upon Merlin, and spake: “Flyest thou now, my hawk?”

Merlin his chaste teeth closed in on the apple, and the great and mighty wind closed a door against the stone and hushed to become a soft murmuring breeze, as a still small voice.

Merlin looked upon his master. “Though the Grail remain a secret and a secret remain the Grail, men shall know it even under its cloak of samite most red. When a man shall grasp the secret of the Grail then shall he grasp the mystery of the Trinity.”

Blaise looked upon his servant. “And who shall be in that grasp?”

Merlin spake softly. “My lord, I wit me not.”

Blaise said, “My lord, it is well with thee.”

Merlin abode in a quiet still spirit.

The hours and days passed quickly, until it was Sunday and George left a little early and arrived at the Church of the Holy Trinity early, looked at his watch and saw 8:53 AM.

He stepped inside and found things suddenly cool. There was a dazzling darkness, with pure candlelight and lamplight glittering off of gold, with fragrances of smoke and beeswax and incense. There was a soft chanting, and the funny thing was that it was hard to say whether the Church seemed full or empty. He saw few people, even for the small space, but he had rather a sense that the place was full of worshipers, mostly unseen. He could feel glory, almost as a weight.

There seemed to be a continuous faint commotion as people entered, went to the front, doing something he could not tell, and walked around. He stood as most people were standing, although some were sitting and people seemed to bow or move their hands. It is not exactly that George did not feel conspicuous as to how he was standing out, as that that was not quite the greatest way he felt conspicuous.

How did he feel conspicuous? George found no answer he liked. The whole situation seemed foreign to him, and for the first time it did not seem so much that he was examining something but that something, or someone, was examining him and judging him.

Something happened. Or rather, this time the something that happened meant that people were sitting down, in pews around the edges or on the floor, and the chant had become ordinary speech. Fr. Elijah said,

In the Name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Last week after Liturgy, little John came up to me and said, “Fr. Elijah, I have a question.” “What, I asked.” “I saw Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark Friday and it was really, really cool! Could you tell me all about the Ark?” So I paused in thought, and exercised a spiritual father’s prerogative. I said, “You know what? That’s a good question. Let me think a bit and I’ll answer that question in my homily.” And when his father said, “But weren’t you going to—” I said, “Don’t worry about that. I’ll blame the homily on him, and if people find it duller than a worn-out butter knife, they can call you at work and complain.” And finally I got him to crack a faint smile.

So this is the homily I’m blaming on him. First of all, the Ark of the Covenant is a spiritual treasure, and is spiritually understood. It is not lost, but it is found in a much deeper way than some expect. For it is both a what and, more deeply, a who. You can look up in fact where it is, and the amazing thing is that it is still guarded as a relic rather than treated simply as something that merely belongs in a museum, and the hidden Ark is in fact greater than if it were displayed in a showcase. It is one of many treasures the Church guards, and it is at the Church of our Lady Mary gof Zion in the Ethiopian city of Axum. I’ve been there, even if I could not see the Ark. But the Ark which holds the bread from Heaven and the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed is in the shadow of the Ark to whom we sing, “Rejoice, O Volume wherein the Word was inscribed” and whose womb is a garden of spiritual treasures, “more spacious than the Heavens” as we say, by whom we are given the greater and in fact greatest Bread from Heaven. When we read of the Ark coming to King David and of the Theotokos or Mother of God coming to Lady Elizabeth, there are some surprising parallels which seem stunning until we recognize that that is just how Luke might be telling us that the Theotokos is someone to whom the Ark hints. There is a profound connection to the Arthurian legends, in which the Sir Galahad is granted to see into the Holy Grail and beholds a wonder beyond the power of words to tell. And it is in fact a misunderstanding on a number of levels to think that that rich Grail is confined to—

If George were sitting on a chair, he might have fallen off it. He was, fortunately, sitting on the floor. When he caught himself enough to follow the words, he listened closely:

…these other images. It was from the virgin earth that the first Adam, by whom we all live natural life, was taken. It was from the parched earth of the Virgin Theotokos that the last Adam, by whom we are called to the divine life, was given. And still this is not to tell how the first Adam, wanting to become God, lost his divinity, until God became the Last Adam, raising up Adam that all of us who bear Adam’s likeness might become divine, bearing the likeness of God. Death entered when we took and ate the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and now everlasting begins when we obey the summons to take and eat the Fruit from the Tree of Life.

Is it possible to call Mary Magdalene the Holy Grail? Yes and amen. We can call Mary Magdalene the Holy Grail in a very deep sense. She spoke before the Emperor, and that incident is why after all these years Christians still color Easter eggs, red eggs for the Orthodox Church as the were for Mary Magdalene, when she presented a red egg to the Emperor, perhaps miraculously. There are only a few dozen people the Church has ever honored more. She bears the rank of “Equal to the Apostles,” and an angel told her the mysterious news of the Resurrection, and it was she who told the Apostles who in turn would be sent (“Apostle” means “Sent One”) to the uttermost ends of the earth.

The Holy Grail is that vessel which first held the blood of Christ, and it is the shadow of that symbol in which the body and blood of Christ become real so that they can transform us. The Eucharist is misunderstood through the question of just what happens when the priest consecrates the gift, because the entire point of the transformation of the gifts is the transformation of the faithful so that we can be the Body of Christ and have the divine blood, the royal bloodline, the divine life coursing through our veins. God the Father the Father for whom every fatherhood in Heaven and earth is named. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each the King for whom every kingdom is named, so that the Kingdom of Heaven is more, not less, of a Kingdom than the kingdoms we can study on earth.

In the third prayer before communion, we are invited to pray, “O Thou Who by the coming of the Comforter, the Spirit, didst make thy sacred disciples precious vessels, declare me also to be a receptacle of his coming.” Mary Magdalene bears powerful witness to what a disciple can be if she becomes a humble earthen vessel in which there is another coming of Christ. She became the Holy Grail, as does every one of us transformed by the power of Christ’s body and blood. If you only ask questions about the transformation of bread and wine, the Holy Grail is merely a what… but if you recognize the larger transformation that has the smaller transformation as a microcosm, the Holy Grail can also be a who: you and I.

It would take much longer to even begin to speak of that nobility of which you will only find the trace and shadow if you study royalty and their bloodlines. I have spoken enough.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

George was at once attracted, entranced, repulsed, and terrified. It seemed like more than he had dared to dream was proclaimed as truth, but that this meant he was no longer dealing with his choice of fantasy, but perhaps with reality itself. The chanting resumed. There was a procession, and what was in it? Ornate candles, a golden spoon and something that looked like a miniature golden lance, something covered with a cloth but that from its base might have been an intricately worked golden goblet, a cross that seemed to be glory itself, and other things he could not name. It was not long before George heard, “The holy things are for those who are holy,” and the reply—was it a correction?—immediately followed: “One is holy. One is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.”

George wanted to squirm when he heard the former, and when he heard the latter, he headed for the door. The spiritual weight he had been feeling seemed more intense; or rather, it seemed something he couldn’t bear even though he hoped it would continue. He felt, just for a moment that this was more than him having an experience, but he failed to put his finger on what more it might be.

Once outside, he tried to calmly walk home, but found himself running.

George found himself walking, but in completely unfamiliar surroundings. He spent a good deal of time wandering until he recognized a major road, and walked alongside it until he returned home, hungry and parched.

He opened Brocéliande for a moment, but did not feel much like reading it. George went to check his email, began looking through his spam folder—to see if anything important got through, he told himself—and found himself wandering around the seedier side of the net.

In the days that followed, people seemed to be getting in his way, his homework was more of a waste of time, and somehow Brocéliande no longer seemed interesting.

Friday, George missed dinner and went, hungry, to a crowded store where a white-haired man stood right between him and the food he wanted… not only blocking the aisle with his cart, but adding a third 12-pack of soda to the bottom of his cart… and seeming to take forever to perform such a simple task.

After waiting what seemed too long, George refrained from saying “Gramps,” but found himself hissing through his teeth, “Do you need help getting that onto your cart?”

The white-haired man turned around in surprise, and then said, “Certainly, George, how are you?”

George stopped.

It was Fr. Elijah.

“Can, um, I help you get that in your cart?”

“Thank you, George, and I would appreciate if you would help me choose another one. Do you have a favorite soda?”

“This may sound silly, but Grape Crush. Why?”

“Help me find a 12-pack of it. I realized after you came that it was kind of silly for me to inviting people like you inside and not having any soda for them, and I’ve been procrastinating ever since. Aah, I think I see them over there. Could you put that under your cart?”

George began walking over to the Grape Crush.

Fr. Elijah asked, less perfunctorily, “How are you, George?” and reached out his hand. At least George thought Fr. Elijah was reaching out his hand, but it was as if Fr. Elijah was standing on the other side of an abyss of defilement, and holding out a live coal.

Fr. Elijah shook George’s hand.

George tried to find his footing on shifting ground, and managed to ask, “Fr. Elijah, how are you going to get that soda out to your car?”

“Usually someone from the store helps me put things in my trunk or something; I’ve never found a grocery store to be a place where nothing is provided.”

The chasm yawned; George felt as if he were clothed in filthy rags.

“Um, and at home?”

“The Lord always provides something. Sorry, that sounded super spiritual. Usually it’s not too long before someone strong comes by and can carry things.”

George tried to smile. “I’m fine. How are you?”

Fr. Elijah made no answer with words. He smiled a welcoming smile, and somehow the store began to remind him of Fr. Elijah’s office.

George kept waiting for Fr. Elijah to say something more, to answer, but Fr. Elijah remained silent. There seemed to be a warmth about him, as well as something he feared would burn his defilement, but Fr. Elijah remained silent, and pushed his cart, which had a small armload of groceries and a heavy weight of soda cases, to the register.

“I can help you load things into your car, Fr. Elijah.”

Fr. Elijah turned with warmth. Gratitude was almost visible in his features, but he remained strangely silent.

George momentarily remembered to grab a sandwich, then returned to Fr. Elijah in line.

George began to wonder why Fr. Elijah was not speaking to him. Or rather, that was the wrong way to put it. George could not accuse Fr. Elijah of being inattentive, but why was he silent?

George began to think about what he had been doing, and trying not to, to think of something else, to think of something else to talk about. But images returned to his mind, and a desire to—he certainly couldn’t mention that.

Where were they? Fr. Elijah had just pushed the cart to his car, and slowly fumbled with his keys to unlock his trunk. George thought with a shudder about what it would be like to an old man to load cases of soda, even 12-packs.

“I can help you unload the soda at your house.”

Fr. Elijah turned and made the slightest bow.

Once inside the car, George made a few nervous remarks about the weather. Fr. Elijah simply turned with what must have been a fatherly smile, but said nothing.

George did not consider himself strong, but it was only a few minutes for him to get the handful of cases of soda tucked into a slightly messy closet.

Once back in the car, Fr. Elijah seemed to arrive almost immediately at the dorm.

George said, “Now I remember. I wouldn’t ask for another ride back, but I should have asked to borrow a book from your library.”

Fr. Elijah turned. “Should you?”

George said, “What do you mean, should I? Are you mad at me? Didn’t you tell me that I could borrow any book in your library if you wanted?”

Fr. Elijah said, “For all I am concerned now, you may borrow the whole library, if you want to. Or keep it, if you want.”

“Then why don’t you want me borrowing a book now?”

“I have many good books you could read, but right now, you don’t really want one of my books.”

“What do you mean?”

“If you genuinely want to borrow a book, I will gladly talk with you and suggest what I think would be your deepest joy. But why are you asking me for a book now?”

“I thought it would be polite to…”

Fr. Elijah waited an interminable moment and said, “Something is eating you.”

George said, “You have no right to—”

Fr. Elijah said, “I have no right to this discussion, and neither do you. Thinking in terms of rights is a way to miss the glory we were made for. But let us stop looking at rights and start looking at what is beneficial. You don’t have to answer, but are you happy now?”

George waited, and waited, and waited for an escape route to open up. Then he said, and the saying seemed like he was passing through white-hot ice, “I’ve been looking at—”

Fr. Elijah said, “Stop, You’ve said enough.”

George said, “But how did you know?”

Fr. Elijah sighed, and for a moment looked like he wanted to weep. “George, I would like to say something deep and mysterious about some special insight I have into people’s souls, but that is not it. I am a father, a confessor, and one of the biggest sins I hear in confession—’biggest’ not because it is unforgivable; Jesus was always ready, more than ready, to forgive this kind of sin, but ‘biggest’ because it keeps coming up and causing misery, is the sort of sin you’ve been struggling with. I count myself very fortunate that I grew up in an age when you could have all the basic utilities without getting all sorts of vile invitations coming whether you want them or not, and I am glad that I do not feel obligated to purchase some nasty pills because I’m not a real man unless I have the same drives I had at the age of eighteen. What a miserably small and constricted caricature of manhood! I count myself a real man, much more because I have not suffered what tends to become such a dreary dissipation and deflation of any real manhood.”

George said, “You’re not mad?”

Fr. Elijah raised his hand, moved it up and down and side to side, and said, “I am blessing you, priceless son.”

George said, “How can I be free of this?”

Fr. Elijah said, “Come with me. Get back in the car.”

They drove for a few more minutes, neither one needing to say anything, until George noticed with alarm the shape of the hospital.

George said, “Where are we going?”

Fr. Elijah said, “To the emergency room.”

George looked around in panic. “I don’t have money for—”

“Relax. None of the treatment you will be receiving will generate bills.”

“What on earth are you—”

“I’m not telling you. Just come with me.”

They walked through a side door, George’s heart pounding, and George noticed two people approaching immediately.

Fr. Elijah turned momentarily, saying, “Buenos noches, Señoras,” and motioned with his hand for them to follow him.

As they and George followed, Fr. Elijah said, “Because of the triage in an emergency room, and because mere seconds are a matter of life and death in treating really severe injuries, people with relatively ‘minor’ injuries that still need medical attention can wait for an interminable amount of time.”

Fr. Elijah suddenly stopped. George saw a boy with skinned knees, whose mother was slowly working through paperwork. Fr. Elijah said, “Take away his pain.”

George looked at him, halfway to being dumbfounded. “What?”

Fr. Elijah said, “You heard me.” Then he turned and left, so that George saw only Fr. Elijah’s back and heard from him only broken Spanish.

George felt grateful that at least he wasn’t too easily grossed out. He could look at lacerated flesh and eat if he needed to. George sat next to the boy, smelled an overwhelming odor from his blood, and suddenly felt sick to his stomach.

George tried to refrain from swearing about what Fr. Elijah could possibly have meant. Badger the hospital into giving anaesthesia sooner? Kiss it and make it better? Use some psychic power he didn’t have? Find a switch on the back of the kid’s neck and reboot him?

For a while, nothing happened, until the boy stopped sobbing, and looked at him, a little bit puzzled.

George said, “Hi, I’m George.”

The boy said, “Mr. George.”

George tried to think of something to say. He said, “What do you get when you cross an elephant with a kangaroo?”

“What?”

“Really big holes all over Australia.”

The boy looked at him, but showed no hint of a smile.

“Do you not get it?” George asked.

The boy said, very quietly, “No.”

“An elephant has a lot of weight, and a kangaroo bounces up and down. If you put ‘weight’ and ‘bouncy’ together, then you get something that, when it bounces, is so heavy it makes big holes in the ground.”

The boy said nothing until George added, “That’s what makes it funny.”

The boy made himself laugh loudly, and just as soon winced in pain.

George tried to think of what to do. After a while, he asked, “What’s your favorite color?”

When the boy said nothing, George looked at his face and was surprised at the pain he saw.

“What is your name?”

“My name is Tommy.”

George thought about what to say. He began to tell a story. He told of things he had done as a boy, and funny things that had happened (the boy didn’t laugh), and asked questions which met with incomprehension. And this went on and on and on.

George wondered why he was having so much fun.

Then George looked at Tommy.

When was the last time George had even begun to do something for someone else?

George realized three things. First, he had stopped talking. Second, a hand was holding tightly to his sleeve. Third, there was something he was trying very hard not to think about.

George looked, and Tommy asked, “Mister, are you a knight? I want to be a knight when I grow up.”

George had never before felt such shame that he wished the earth would swallow him up.

“Mister?”

“No, I am not a knight.”

“You seem like a knight.”

“Why?”

“You just do. Do you know anything about knights?”

“I’ve been reading a book.”

“What’s it called?”

Brocéliande.”

“Tell me the story of Brookie-Land.”

“I can’t.”

“Why?”

“Because I haven’t read all of it.”

“What have you read?”

George closed his eyes. All he could remember now was a flurry of images, but when he tried to put them together nothing worked.

George was interrupted. “Do you have a suit of armor?”

Immediately, and without thought, George said, “What kind of armor? I mean, is it chain mail, like a steel, I mean iron, sweater, or is it the later plate armor that gets into the later depictions? Because if there were a King Arthur, he would—”

“Did King Arthur know powerful Merlin? Because Merlin could—”

“I’ve read a lot about Merlin—he could build a castle just with his magic. And it apparently matters whose son he is, but I couldn’t—”

“I want you to show me—”

A voice cut in. “Tommy!”

“Yes?” the boy said.

“The doctor is ready to see you… Sir, I’m sorry to interrupt, but—”

“Why does the doctor want to see me?”

“Because she wants to stitch up your knees, Silly Sweetie. Let the nurses roll you away. I’m glad—”

Tommy looked in puzzlement at his knees, saw how badly lacerated they were, and began screaming in pain.

There was a minor commotion as the nurses took Tommy in to be stitched up, or so George would later guess; he could never remember the moment. He only remembered walking around the emergency room, dazed.

Truth be told, though, George felt wonderful. He faintly noticed hearing Fr. Elijah’s voice, saying something in Spanish, and joined a group of people among whom he felt immediate welcome. Then the woman who was on the bed was taken in, and Fr. Elijah, and to his own surprise, George, bid farewell to the other members of the group.

George and Fr. Elijah were both silent for a long time in the car.

Fr. Elijah broke the silence.

“Would it be helpful to talk with me about anything?”

“I have to choose just one?”

“No, you can ask as many questions as you want.”

“Besides what I started to tell you—”

“Yes?”

“When I was talking with that boy, I mean Tommy, the boy you introduced me to, I—I’m not sure I would have said exactly this, but I’ve been spending a lot of time reading Brocéliande and no time choosing to be with other people… would you keep that book for me, at least for a time?”

“I certainly could, but let’s look at our option. You sound less than fully convinced.”

“I don’t want to give it up.”

“Well, yes, I wouldn’t want to give it up either. But is that it?”

“No… I’m really puzzled. Just when I thought I had managed to stop thinking about never-never land and start thinking about Tommy, the kid asked me about never—I mean, he said that he wanted to grow up to be a knight, and he asked me if I was a knight. Which I am not.”

“That’s very mature of you…”

“And?”

“What would you imagine yourself doing as the right thing?”

“Getting away from that silly desire and be with other people instead.”

“Hmm.”

“Hmm what?”

“Have you ever read C.S. Lewis’s ‘The Weight of Glory’?”

“No.”

“Ok, I want to stop by my office before I drop you off at home, because I’m going to go against my word and give you literature to read. Although I only want you to read a few pages’ essay out of the book, unless you want to read more essays—is this OK?—”

“I suppose.”

“Because C.S. Lewis talked about the idea of unselfishness as a virtue, and said that there’s something pitiable about letting unselfishness be the center of goodness instead of the divine love. Or something like that. And the reason I remembered that is that somewhere connected with this is this terrible fear that people have that their desires are too strong, and maybe their desires are too much in need of being deepened and layered, except I think he only said, ‘too weak.’ Today I would add: in a much deeper way that you can remedy by dangerous pills in your spam.

“Maybe you don’t need to get rid of that book at all… maybe you should lend it to me for a time, and let me enjoy it, but maybe not even that is necessary.”

“Why?”

“My guess is that if you read enough in that book—or at least the ones I’ve read—you may notice a pattern. The knight goes to the company of the castle and then plunges into the woodland for adventure and quests, and you need a rhythm of both to make a good story. Or a good knight.”

“I fail to see how I could become a knight, or how knighthood applies to me.”

“Hmm…”

“Hmm what?”

“Maybe that’s a can of worms we can open another time… For now, I will say that the reason the stories have knights doing that is not because the knights wore armor and rode horses, but because the people telling the stories were telling the stories of men. Who need both castle and wood. Keep reading Brocéliande, and push it further. Push it to the point that your college and your city are to you what the castle was to the knight. Or even so that you don’t see the difference. And alongside your trek into the enchanted wood, meet people. I would suggest that you find a way to connect with people, and work with it over time. If I may offer a prescription—”

“Prescription?”

“A priest is meant to be a spiritual physician, or at least that is what Orthodox understand. And part of the priest’s job is to prescribe something. If you’re willing.”

“I’ll at least listen.”

“First, I want you to spend some of your time with other people. Not all.”

“Doing what?”

“That’s something you need to decide, and even if I can offer feedback to you, I would not make that decision for you. You need to have a think about it.

“Second, something for you to at least consider… Come to me for confession. I cannot give the sacrament I give to Orthodox, but I can bless you. Which isn’t the immediate reason I mention it. Even if I were not to bless you, and even if Christ were not listening to your confession, there would still be power in owning up to what you have done. It gives power in the struggle.

“Third, do you access the Internet through a cable or through wireless?”

“An ethernet cable. I don’t have a laptop, and I’ve heard that the wireless network on campus is worth its weight in drool.”

“Do you have a USB key?”

“Yes.”

“Then give me your Ethernet cable.”

“What kind of Luddite—”

“I’m not being a Luddite. I’m offering a prescription for you… There are different prescriptions offered for the needs of different people.”

“So for some people it is beneficial to visit—”

“For me it has been. When I was trying to figure out what was going on, I went to a couple’s house, and with their permission started looking through the pictures in their spam folder until I’d had more than enough. And I wept for a long time; I suddenly understood something I didn’t understand about what I was hearing in confession. I still pray for the people photographed and those looking at the photograph, and some of the women’s faces still haunt me—”

“The faces haunt you?”

“Yes. Understand that at my age, some temptations are weaker… but I looked at those faces and saw that each one was somebody’s daughter, or maybe somebody’s son, and my understanding is that it’s nothing pleasant to pose for those pictures. At least the faces I saw reminded me of an airline stewardess trying really hard to smile peacefully to someone who is being abrasive and offensive. But as I was saying, I count my hour of looking to be of the greatest spiritual benefit. But it would not benefit you, and it is my judgment that inyour case a little of what programmers call a ‘net vacation’—though I invite you to use lab and library computers—could help you in—”

“Do you know what it’s like to give up the convenience of computers in your room?”

“Do you know what it’s like to ride a horse instead of a car for a short time? I do…”

“But riding a horse is at least… like… um… it’s more like Arthur’s world, isn’t it?”

“If you want to look at it that way, you’re welcome to…” Fr. Elijah stopped the car and stepped out, saying, “Please excuse me for a moment.” The shuffling seemed to drag on, and Fr. Elijah stepped out with a book and got back in the car. “Oh, and I almost forgot. Please don’t make this a matter of ‘I won’t do such-and-such or even think about it,’ because trying not to think about a temptation is a losing game. I am inviting you to a trek from castle to wood, and wood to castle, with both feeding into a balance. Here is the book with ‘The Weight of Glory’ and other essays. Now…”

Calix College was in sight almost immediately, and Fr. Elijah waited outside George’s dorm for what became a surprisingly long time… he wondered if he should go up and see if George had changed his mind, and—

George walked out and handed him a cable in the dark. It was thick and stiff.

“I thought Ethernet cables weren’t this thick and stiff.”

“It’s my power cable. I put stuff I need on my USB key.”

“Good man.”

“Goodbye.”

“Goodbye, and George, one other thing…”

“Yes?”

“There is no better time to be in a Church than when you know how unworthy you are.”

“Um…”

“What?”

“I appreciate how much you’re stretching, but…”

“George, I want to ask you something.”

“I’ve been serving the Divine Liturgy for thirty-eight years now. How long have I been worthy to do so?”

“Is this a trick question? All thirty-eight?”

“It is indeed a trick question, but the answer is not ‘thirty-eight.’ I have never been worthy to serve the Divine Liturgy, nor have I ever been worthy to receive communion, nor have I ever been worthy to pray at Church, or anywhere else. We can talk about this if you like, but am not just being polite when I say that there is no better time to enter the Church than when you know yourself unworthy. Maybe we can talk later about what trumps unworthiness. For now, I wish you good night, and I would be delighted to see you join and adorn our company on Sunday.”

George climbed up in his room and sat in his armchair, and it felt like a throne. He was exhausted—and on the other side of shame. He began dutifully opening the C.S. Lewis book, glanced at the title, then tossed it aside. It was not what he really wanted. He picked upBrocéliande, wiped the dust off the cover with his hand, and opened to its middle, to its heart. George read:

rode until he saw a river, and in the river a boat, and in the boat a man.

The man was clad all in black, and exceeding simple he appeared. At his side was a spear, and was a basket full of oysters filled.

“I ask your pardon that I cannot stand. For the same cause I can not hunt, for I am wounded through the thighs. I do what I might, and fish to share with others.”

The knight rode on, Sir Perceval he hyght, until he came upon a castle. And in that castle he met a welcome rich, before a King all in sable clad round, and a sash of purple royal girt about his head, and full majestic he looked.

Then in walked a youth, bearing a sword full straight, for it were not falchion neither scimitar, but a naked sword with a blade of gold, bright as light, straight as light, light as light. The very base of that sword were gem work, of ivory made and with sapphires encrusted. And the boy was girt tightly with a baldric and put the sword in its place. In utmost decorum the sword hung at his side.

The boy placed what he shouldered at the feet of the King.

Spake the King: “I ask your forgiveness that I do not rise. Partake of my feast.”

Simpler fare was never adorned by such wealth of wisdom. The body was nourished, and ever more spirit in the fare that was read.

Anon processed one man holding a candelabra of purest gold with seven candles, anon another, anon a maiden mother holding a Grail, it was such a holy thing! Anon a lance that ever bore three drops of blood. And ever Perceval wondered, and never Perceval spake, though it passed many a time. With a war inside him Sir Perceval kept him his peace. Anon the King spake, “See thou mine only food,” and anon came the Grail holding not a stone neither a snake but a single wheaten host, afloat as a pearl in a sea of wine, red as blood. And never the King ate he none else.

Here a page was ripped out from Brocéliande, with yellowed marks where once tape failed to mend what was torn.

The damsel arose from her weeping. “Perceval! Perceval! Why askedst thou not thine enquiry?”

George soon fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Saturday he rested him all the day long: barely he stirred.

In his dream, George heard a song.

All was in darkness.

The song it came out of a mist, like as a mist, melodic, mysterious, piercing, like as a prayer, mighty, haunting, subtle, token of home and a trace of a deep place. How long this continued he wot not.

The one high, lilting voice, tinged with starlight, became two, three, many, woven in and out as a braid of three strands, or five, or ten, as a Celtic knot ever turning in and out. And as it wove in and out, it was as the waters of a lake, of an ocean, of a sea, and George swam in them. George was ever thirsty, and ever he swam. He swam in an ever-rippling reflection of the Heavens at midnight, a sea of unending midnight blue and living sapphire.

George’s feet sunk and he walked on the noiseless loam. Up about him sprung blades of grass and he walked into a forest growing of emerald and jade atop pillars of sculpted earth. Anon he walked slowly and slowly he saw a farm with the green grass of wheat growing of the fertile fecund field.

Upon a ruins he came, a soft, silent place where a castle still lingered and the verdant moss grew. Then through a city he walked, a city alive and vibrant in its stones, though its streets were a for a moment at a rest from its men. And in that city, he walked into the Church his heart, and found a tome opened upon a wooden stand entwined by vines.

George looked for a moment at the volume, and for a moment he saw letters of sable inscribed in a field argent. Then the words shifted, grew older, deepened into the depth of a root and the play of quicksilver. The script changed, the words spoke from afar, and became one word whose letters were hidden as behind a veil, one word inscribed at once in ciphers of luminous gold and congealed light that filled the book and shone all around it until—

George was awake, bright awake, wide awake, looking at a window the color of sunrise.

He arose to greet the coming of the dawn.

George went to Church and arrived almost an hour earlier than the 9:00 Fr. Elijah had given, and found to his surprise that although there were few other people, things had already begun. The fragrance of frankincense flowed and gold glittered, and he caught a word here and a phrase there—”Volume wherein the Word was inscribed,” “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal,” “Blessed is the Kingdom,” “Lord have mercy.” Then he heard a phrase he had heard innumerable times in other contexts. A shibboleth later taken from the New Testament, “The just shall live by faith,” completely broke the illusion. George had had plenty of time to get sick of words he knew too well, or so it appeared to George. Yes, he was glad people understood them, but wasn’t there more to understand than that? Even if they were both straightforward and important…

The homily began.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

One of the surprises in the Divine Comedy—to a few people at least—is that the Pope is in Hell. Or at least it’s a surprise to people who know Dante was a devoted Catholic but don’t recognize how good Patriarch John Paul and Patriarch Benedict have been; there have been some moments Catholics aren’t proud of, and while Luther doesn’t speak for Catholics today, he did put his finger on a lot of things that bothered people then. Now I remember an exasperated Catholic friend asking, “Don’t some Protestants know anything else about the Catholic Church besides the problems we had in the sixteenth century?” And when Luther made a centerpiece out of what the Bible said about those who are righteous or just, “The just shall live by faith,” which was in the Bible’s readings today, he changed it, chiefly by using it as a battle axe to attack his opponents and even things he didn’t like in Scripture.

It’s a little hard to see how Luther changed Paul, since in Paul the words are also a battle axe against legalistic opponents. Or at least it’s hard to see directly. Paul, too, is quoting, and I’d like to say exactly what Paul is quoting.

In one of the minor prophets, Habakkuk, the prophet calls out to the Lord and decries the wickedness of those who should be worshiping the Lord. The Lord’s response is to say that he’s sending in the Babylonians to conquer, and if you want to see some really gruesome archaeological findings, look up what it meant for the Babylonians or Chaldeans to conquer a people. I’m not saying what they did to the people they conquered because I don’t want to leave you trying to get disturbing images out of your minds, but this was a terrible doomsday prophecy.

The prophet answered the Lord in anguish and asked how a God whose eyes were too pure to look on evil could possibly punish his wicked people by the much more wicked Babylonians. And the Lord’s response is very mysterious: “The just shall live by faith.”

Let me ask you a question: How is this an answer to what the prophet asked the Lord? Answer: It isn’t. It’s a refusal to answer. The same thing could have been said by saying, “I AM the Lord, and my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways. I AM WHO I AM and I will do what I will do, and I am sovereign in this. I choose not to tell you how, in my righteousness, I choose to let my wicked children be punished by the gruesomely wicked Babylonians. Only know this: even in these conditions, the just shall live by faith.”

The words “The just shall live by faith” are an enigma, a shroud, and a protecting veil. To use them as Paul did is a legitimate use of authority, an authority that can only be understood from the inside, but these words remain a protecting veil even as they take on a more active role in the New Testament. The New Testament assumes the Old Testament even as the New Testament unlocks the Old Testament.

Paul does not say, “The just shall live by sight,” even as he invokes the words, “The just shall live by faith.”

Here’s something to ponder: The righteous shall walk by faith even in their understanding of the words, “The just shall live by faith.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

George was awash and realized with a start that he was not knocked off his feet, gasping for air. He felt a light, joyful fluidity and wondered what was coming next. This time he realized he was sure he saw a chalice; the liturgy seemed to go a little more smoothly and quickly.

As soon as he was free, Fr. Elijah came up to him. “Good to see you, George. How are you?”

George said, “Delighted… but I’m sorry, I haven’t read ‘The Weight of Glory’ for you yet.”

Fr. Elijah said, “Good man… no, I’m not being sarcastic. Put first things first, and read it when you have leisure. How did you find the homily?”

George said, “It was excellent… by the way, it was really for me that you preached last week’s homily, right? You seemed to be going a good bit out of your way.”

“It was really for you, as it was also really for others for reasons you do not know.”

“But weren’t you getting off track?”

“George, I have a great deal of responsibility, concerns, and duties as a priest. But I have a great deal of freedom, too. I can, if you want, draw on King Arthur and his court every service I preach at from now until Christmas.”

“How much do you mean, I mean literally? One or two? Four or five?”

“Huh? ‘Literally’? Um, there is a temptation in the West to devote entirely too much time to what is literal. I was exaggerating when I said every service from now until Chrismas… but, if you want, I’d be perfectly happy to do that literally, for every service you’re here.” Fr. Elijah extended his had. “Deal?”

George paused in thought a moment. “Um, you’ve said that I could take all the books in your library and keep them if I want. I know you were exaggerating, but…”

“Yes, I was. But I am not exaggerating when I say that you can take them if you want.”

“Don’t you love books?”

“Immensely, but not as much as I want to love people! They’re just possessions, and there are much greater treasures in my life than a good book, even though books can be quite good. Can we agree that I’ll preach on something in Arthurian literature every liturgy I preach at until Christmas?”

“What if I’m not here?”

“We can make it part of the deal that I’ll only preach on that topic if you’re here.”

George hesitated, and then shook his hand. “Deal.”

Fr. Elijah smiled. “Some people have said my best homilies and best surprises have come from this kind of rash vow.”

George started to walk away, and then stopped.

Fr. Elijah said, “Is something on your mind?”

George said, “What if other people don’t like you preaching on something so odd? What will you do if people complain?”

Fr. Elijah said, “Then I can give them your cell phone number and have them call you at all hours of the day and night to grouse at you for foisting such a terrible proposal on me. Now get some coffee. Go! Shoo!”

After getting home, George did his laundry, looked to see if anyone was hanging out in the lounge (everybody was gone), and played games in the computer lab. It was a nice break.

The next day in math class, the teacher drew a grid on the board, drew dots where the lines crossed, erased everything but the dots, and set the chalk down. “Today I’d like to show a game. I’m handing out graph paper; draw dots where the lines cross. We’re going to have two people taking turns drawing lines between dots that are next to each other. If you draw a line that completes a little square, you get a point. I’d like a couple of students to come up and play on the board.” After a game, there was a momentary shuffle, and George found himself playing against the kid next to him. This continued for longer than he expected, and George began to piece together patterns of what would let his opponent score points, then what laid the groundwork for scoring points…

The teacher said, “Have any of you noticed things you want to avoid in this game? Why do these things lead to you giving points to your opponent when you don’t want to, or scoring points yourself? This kind of observation is at the heart of a branch of mathematics called ‘combinatorics.’ And almost any kind of game a computer can play—I’m not talking about tennis—is something that computers can only play through combinatorics. I’d like to show you some more ‘mathematical’ examples of problems with things we call ‘graphs’ where a lot of those same kinds of things are—”

She continued giving problems and showing the kinds of thought in those problems.

George felt a spark of recognition—the same thing that attracted him to puzzles. Or was it something deeper? Many “twenty questions” puzzles only depended on identifying an unusual usage of common words, “53 bicycles” referring to “Bicycle” brand playing cards rather than any kind of vehicle, and so on and so forth. Some of what the teacher was showing seemed deeper…

…and for the first time in his life, the ring of a buzzer left George realizing he was spellbound in a math class. It set his mind thinking.

In English class, he winced, as just as before-class chatter seemed about to end, one of the other students said, “A man gets up in the morning, looks out his window, and sees the sun rising in the West. Why?”

George was not in particular looking forward to a discussion of literature he wasn’t interested in, but he wanted even less to hear people blundering about another “twenty questions” problem, and cut in, “Because the earth’s magnetic poles, we suppose, were fluctuating, and so the direction the sun was rising from was momentarily the magnetic West.”

The teacher laughed. “That isn’t the answer, is it?”

The student who had posed the question said, “Um… it is…”

The professor said, “So we are to imagine someone going to a gas station, saying, ‘Which way is East?’, and the attendant responding with, ‘Just a sec, lemme check… I know usually this way is East, but with the Earth’s magnetic fluctuations, who knows?’ You know that in a lot of literature, East and West are less like numbers than like colors?”

“Um… How could a direction be like a number or a color?”

“There’s colorful difference and colorless difference. If I tell you there are 57 pens in my desk, I haven’t said anything very colorful that tells much about pens, or about my desk. But if I tell you a rose is a delicate pink, I’ve told you something about what it’s like, what it’s like, to experience a rose.”

“So what color is East, then? Camouflage green?”

“East isn’t a color, but it’s like a color where camouflage green and fiery red are different. In both Greek and Russian, people use the same word for ‘East’ and ‘sunrise’… and if you’re really into etymology, English does this too, only we don’t realize it any more. ‘East’ in English originally means ‘sunrise,’ as ‘Easter’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon name of a goddess of light and spring. Such terrible things the Orthodox miss out on by their quaint use of ‘Pascha.’ For us, the ‘big’ direction, the one which has the longest arrow or the biggest letter, the one all other directions are arranged around, is North; in Hebrew, it’s East. There is a reason many churches are arranged East-West and we often worship towards the East, and that has meant something for the U.S… Would you agree that we are part of the West?”

“So our land is the worst land?” George said.

“Well, if you read enough Orthodox nut jobs, yes… particularly if this land is their home. But U.S. land, or part of it at least, is called utter East… the one U.S. state where Orthodoxy isn’t edgy, exotic, fruitcake or ‘other,’ is Alaska, where there has been a native Orthodox presence, strong today, for over two hundred years. You know how, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis has a wood nymph speak an oracle that has drawn Sir Reepicheep all his life?

“Where sky and water meet,
Where the waves grow sweet,
Doubt not, Reepicheep,
To find all you seek,
There is the utter East.

“There’s something big you’ll miss about the holy land of Alaska if you just think of it as fully a state, but just one more state, just like every other state. It’s the only state, if ‘state’ is an adequate term, with a still-working mechanical clock on the outside of a public building that was made by an Orthodox saint. Among other things.

“And the idea of holy land that you would want you to travel to feeds into things, even in Protestant literature like Pilgrim’s Progress, which you will misunderstand if you treat the pilgrimage as just there as a metaphor for spiritual process. I have found it very interesting to look at what people classify as ‘just part of the allegory,’ even though we will read no simpler allegory among the readings for this class. Now in reading for today, have any of you had an experience like Pilgrim’s wakeup call at the beginning of Bunyan?”

George’s head was swimming.

Why were his classes so dull before this week? He remembered previous math lessons which, in various ways, failed to give him puzzle solving, and in annoyance, turned to previous English lessons, when—

—why hadn’t he paid attention? Or, more accurately, when George had paid attention, why hadn’t he let it be interesting?

Philosophy also turned out to be interesting; the professor began the unit on medieval philosophy by asking, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”, eliciting various forms of derision, then asking people what they were deriding, began asking “How many of you can touch the head of the same pin at once?”, produced a pin, and after students made various jostling efforts, asked whether a pin could accommodate a finite or infinite number of angels.

This was used to a class discussion about the nature of matter and spirit and whether angels dancing on the head of a pin would push each other away the way human bodies would… and at the end of class the professor began asking if people wanted to talk about how unfortunate it was that medieval philosophers had to use the poetic image of angels dancing on the head of a pin where others would have used the colorless language of analytic philosophy.

In chemistry, the professor did nothing in particular to make things interesting. George still enjoyed the lecture as it built to a discussion of isotope distributions as used to compute average molecular weights.

George was quite surprised when the weekend approached, spent the weekend playing card games, and wondered at how quickly Sunday came.

On Sunday, George entered the strange world of the Church building. It seemed more, not less, strange, but things began to make sense. “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” was something he noticed often, and he, if not understanding, was at least comfortable with the continual hubbub as people seemed to be moving about, sometimes to the front.

As the service passed, he found his eyes returning to, and then fixed on, an icon that showed three ?angels? sitting around a stone table. In the back was a mountain, a tree, and a building, a faroff building that George somehow seemed to be seeing from the inside…

The perspective in the picture was wrong. Wait, the perspective wouldn’t be that wrong by accident… the picture looked very distorted, and George wanted to reach out and—

George looked. The perspective vanished, not at some faroff place on the other side of the picture, but behind him, and the picture seemed at once faroff and something seen from inside.

And what was it, almost at the heart of the icon, or somewhere beneath it, that the three peaceful, radiant, great ?angels? almost seemed clustered around? It looked like a chalice of gold.

George was looking, trying to see into the picture, wishing he could go closer, and seeing one person after another come closer in the dance of song and incense. George instinctively found himself backing up, and then realized people were sitting down and Fr. Elijah began:

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sir Thomas Mallory in Le Morte d’Arthur has any number of characters, and I want to describe one of them, Sir Griflet, who is completely forgettable if you don’t know French: he appears briefly, never stays in the narrative for very long, never does anything really striking at all. His lone claim to fame, if you can call it that, is that Mallory refers to him as “Sir Griflet le fils de Dieu.” For those of you who don’t know French, we’ve just been cued in, in passing, that by the way, Sir Griflet is the Son of God.

Now why would this be? There some pretty striking things you can do if you are a character in that work. Sir Griflet is not a singular character who has the kind of energy of Sir Galahad, or in a different but highly significant way, Merlin. For that matter, he does not have even a more routine memorability like Sir Balin who wielded two swords at the same time. He’s just forgettable, so why is he called le fils de Dieu, I mean the Son of God?

In Chretien de Troyes, who is a pivotal author before Mallory, a character with a name that would become “Griflet” is equally pedestrian and is named “fis de Do”, son of Do, which has a root spelling of D-O where the word for God in that form of French is D-E-U. So a starkly pedestrian character, by an equally pedestrian language error, seems to have his father’s name mixed up with how you spell the word for God. How pedestrian, disappointing, and appropriate.

There is a somewhat more interesting case in the story of a monk who believed that Melchizedek was the Son of God, and this is not due to a language error. If you were listening when the readings were chanted from the Bible, you would have heard that Melchizedek was “Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days nor end of life: but made like unto the Son of God, abideth a priest continually.” This may be surprising to us today, but that’s because most of us have lost certain ways of reading Scripture, and it was a holy monk who thought this. He made a theological error, not a mere language error, and when his bishop asked his assistance in praying over whether Melchizedek or Christ was the Son of God, he arrived at the correct answer.

Now let me ask you who is really the Son of God. Do you have an answer now?

I’m positive you’re wrong. It’s a forgettable person like Sir Griflet or Melchizedek.

When the Son of God returns in glory, he will say, “Depart from me, you who are damned, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you showed me no hospitality; naked, and you did not clothe me; sick or in prison, and you did not visit me.” And when the damned are confounded and ask when they could have possibly failed to do that, he will answer them, “I swear to you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it for me.”

We, in our very nature, are symbols of the Trinity, and this does not mean a sort of miniature copy that stands on its own in detachment. The Orthodox understanding of symbol is very difficult to grasp in the West, even if you haven’t heard people trying to be rigorous or, worse, clever by saying “The word is not the thing it represents.” And talking about symbols doesn’t just mean that you can show reverence to a saint through an icon. It means that everything you fail to do to your forgettable neighbor, to that person who does absolutely nothing that draws your attention, you fail to do to Christ.

And if you are going to say, “But my neighbor is not Christ,” are you not straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel in what you are being careful about? Your neighbor as such is not Christ as such. True, but this is really beside the point. It betrays a fundamental confusion if any of the damned answer their Judge and say, “But I wasn’t unkind to you. I was just unkind to other people.” We are so formed by the image of Christ that there is no way to do something to another person without doing that to Christ, or as this parable specifically says, fail to do. And I’d like you to stop for a second. The last time you were at an unexpected funeral, did you regret more the unkind thing you said, or the kind word you failed say, the kind action you failed to take? Perhaps it may be the latter.

Christ hides in each of us, and in every person you meet. There is a mystery: the divine became human that the human might become divine. The Son of God became a man that men might become the Sons of God. God and the Son of God became man that men might become gods and the Sons of God. Christ took on our nature so that by grace we might become what he is by nature, and that does not just mean something for what we should do in our own spiritual practices. It means that Christ hides in each person, and to each person we owe infinite respect, whether they’re boring, annoying, mean, lovely, offensive, fascinating, confusing, predictable, pedestrian, or just plain forgettable like old Sir Griflet.

You owe infinite respect.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Did George want to go up to the icon? He went up, feeling terribly awkward, but hearing only chant and the same shuffle of people in motion. He went up, awkwardly kissed the three figures someplace low, started to walk away in inner turmoil, turned back to the image, bowed as he had seen people see, and kissed the chalice of wine.

It was not long before he saw Fr. Elijah come out with a chalice, and draw from it with a golden spoon. This time he noticed people kissing the base of the chalice. There was nothing awkward about them, and there seemed to be something majestic that he began to catch a glimmer of in each of those present.

George later realized that he had never experienced worship “stopping” and coffee hour “beginning.” The same majestic people went from one activity into another, where there was neither chanting nor incense nor the surrounding icons of a cloud of witnesses, but seemed to be a continuation of worship rather than a second activity begun after worship. He was with the same people.

It didn’t occur until much later to George to wonder why the picture had a chalice… and then he could not stop wondering. He picked up Brocéliande and read:

The knight and the hermit wept and kissed together, and the hermit did ask, “Sir knight, wete thou what the Sign of the Grail be?”

The knight said, “Is that one of the Secrets of the Grail?”

“If it be one of the Secrets of the Grail, that is neither for thee to ask nor to know. The Secrets of the Grail are very different from what thou mightest imagine in thine heart, and no man will get them by looking for secrets. But knowest thou what the Sign of the Grail is?”

“I never heard of it, nor do I know it.”

“Thou wote it better than thou knowest, though thou wouldst wete better still if thou knewest that thou wote.”

“That is perplexing and hard to understand.”

The hermit said, “Knowest thou the Sign of the Cross?”

“I am a Christian and I know it. It is no secret amongst Christians.”

“Then know well that the sacred kiss, the kiss of the mass, even if it be given and received but once per year, is the Sign of the Grail.”

“How is that? What makes it such as I have never heard?”

“I know that not in its fullness. Nor could I count reasons even knew I the fullness of truth. But makest thou the Sign of the Cross when thou art alone?”

“Often, good hermit; what Christian does not?”

“Canst thou make the Sign of the Grail upon another Christian when thou art alone?”

“What madness askest thou?”

“Callest thou it madness? Such it is. But methinks thou wete not all that may be told.”

“Of a certainty speakest thou.”

“When thou dwellest in the darkness that doth compass round about the Trinity round about that none mayeth compass, then wilt thou dwell in the light of the Sign of the Grail with thy fellow man and thy brother Christian, for the darkness of the Trinity is the light of the Grail.”

George got up, closed the book, and slowly put it away. He wondered, but he had read enough.

George dreamed again of a chalice whose silhouette was Light and held Light inside. Then the Light took shape and became three figures. George almost awoke when he recognized the figures from the icon. George dreamed much more, but he could never remember the rest of his dream.

That week, Fr. Elijah’s homily was in George’s mind. He passed the check-in counter as he walked into the cafeteria, began to wonder where he might apply Fr. Elijah’s words… and stopped.

The line was moving slowly; he had come in late after wandering somewhat. Sheepishly, he stopped, looked at the woman who had scanned his ID, and extended his hand. “Hi, I’m George.”

The woman pushed back a strand of silver hair. “Hi. It’s good to meet you, George. I’m Georgina.”

George stood, trying to think of something to say.

Georgina said, “What are you majoring in?”

“I haven’t decided. I like reading… um… it’s really obscure, but some stuff about Arthur.”

“King Arthur and the Round Table?”

“Yes.”

“Wonderful, son. Can you tell me about it sometime? I always love hearing about things.”

George said, “Ok. What do you… um…”

“I been working at this for a long time. It’s nice seeing all you students, and I get some good chats. You remind me of my grandson a little. But you’re probably pretty hungry now, and the lines are closing in a few minutes. Stop by another day!”

George ate his food, thoughtfully, and walked out of the cafeteria wishing he had said hi to more of the support staff.

That week, the halls seemed to be filled with more treasure than he had guessed. He did not work up the courage to introduce himself to too many people, but he had the sense that there was something interesting in even the people he hadn’t met.

On Wednesday, George went to register for his classes next semester, and realized his passwords were… on his computer, the one without a power cord.

After a while, thinking what to do, he knocked on a floormates’ door. “Um, Ivan?”

“Come in, George. What do you want?”

George hesitated and said, “Could I borrow a power cord? Just for a minute? I’ll give it right back.”

Ivan turned around and dragged a medium-sized box from under his bed. It was full of cables.

“Here, and don’t worry about returning it. Take a cord. Take twenty, I don’t care. I have them coming out of my ears.”

George grabbed one cord, then remembered he did not have the cord for his monitor. He took another. “I’ll have these back in a minute.”

“George, you’re being silly. Is there any reason you need not to have a power cord?”

“Um…” George opened his mouth and closed it. Then he hesitated. “No.”

George left, registered online, shut his computer down, left the room, did some work at the library, and went to bed.

Thursday he was distracted.

Friday, it was raining heavily, and after getting soaked in icy rain running to and from his classes, George decided he would check his email from his room… and found himself wandering through the spam folder, and threw the cords out in the dumpster.

Sunday he walked into church with hesitation, and Fr. Elijah almost immediately came over. “Yes, George?”

George hesitated.

Then he told Fr. Elijah what was going on.

Fr. Elijah paused, and said, “George, do you know about the Desert Fathers?”

“No.”

“A group of people a bit like the hermits in Arthurian legend. Some people think that Merlin was originally based on such monks… but aside from that speculation, they were much holier than either of us. And there was one time when someone asked them, ‘What do you do?’ And what do you think the Desert Father said?”

“Pray? Worship? Live a good life?”

“‘We fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up.’ That is the motion of Orthodox life, and if you see prostrations, you will literally see us fall and get up. I’m not sure if you think that if you repent of a sin once, the hard part’s over and it’s all behind you. In my sins, I have to keep repenting again and again. You have fallen, now get up. And get up again. And again. And again. And keep getting up.

“The Lord bless you, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

George walked away still feeling unworthy, and everywhere saw a grandeur that seemed to be for others more worthy than him. Everything around him seemed royal, and Fr. Elijah preached:

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

In our commemorations, we commemorate “Orthodox kings and queens, faithful princes and princesses,” before we commemorate various grades of bishops. The bishop is in fact royalty; instead of calling him “Your Majesty,” we call him “Your Grace,” “Your Eminence,” “Your Holiness,” “Your All Holiness.” If you do research, you will find that the bishop is more than a king: the bishop is the Emperor, and wears the full regalia of the Roman Emperor.

One question that has been asked is, “The king for the kingdom, or the kingdom for the king:” is the king made king for the benefit of the kingdom, or is the kingdom a privilege for the benefit of the king? The Orthodox choice of now requiring bishops to be monks is not because married persons are unfit, or rather necessarily more unfit, to serve. Most of the apostles in whose shadows the monastic bishops stand were married, and the monk bishops I have met consider themselves infinitely less than the married apostles. But a monk is given to be a whole burnt offering where nothing is kept back and everything is offered to God to be consumed by the holy sacrificial fire. (Or at least that’s what’s supposed to happen, but even if this is also what’s supposed to happen in a marriage, it’s more explicit in monasticism.) And it is this whole burnt offering, unworthy though he may be, who makes a bishop: Orthodoxy answers “the king for the kingdom:” the king is made king for the benefit of the kingdom, the bishop serves as a whole burnt offering for the benefit of the diocese.

Now let me ask: Which of us is royalty? And I want you to listen very carefully. All of us bear the royal bloodline of Lord Adam and Lady Eve. It’s not just the bishops. I will not go into this in detail now, but the essence of priesthood is not what I have that “ordinary” Orthodox don’t have. It’s what I have that Orthodox faithful do have. And without you I can celebrate the liturgy. And the essence of royalty is not what a king or bishop has that a “commoner” or faithful does not have; it’s what king and bishop share with the ordinary faithful. The Greek Fathers have no sense that “real” royal rule is humans ruling other humans; that’s a bit of an aberration; the real royal rule is humans ruling over what God has given them and over themselves, and doing that rightly is a much bigger deal than being one of the handful of kings and bishops.

And each of us is called to be what a bishop is: a whole burnt offering in humble service to the kingdom—large or small is not really the point—over which the Lord has appointed us king. It may mean showing conscience by cleaning up your room—and if you have a first world abundance of property, it is a very small way of offering them back to the Lord to keep them in good order. It means carefully stewarding precious moments with other people, maybe saying, “I hope you have a wonderful day,” and saying it like you mean it, to support staff. And it means humbly ruling your kingdom within, in which both Heaven and Hell may be found. It is when you serve as king, the king made for the kingdom, that your kingdom will be your crown and glory.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

After Church, a young woman stormed up to Fr. Elijah. She had, at as far arm’s length from her body as she could hold it, a clear trash bag holding a pink heart-shaped piece of artisan paper that appeared to have writing on it. She stopped opposite Fr. Elijah and said, “Do you know anything about this note?”

Fr. Elijah smiled gently. “It appears someone has sent you some sort of love note. How sweet!”

“Were you involved?”

“What, you think I would do something like that? I’m hurt!”

The young woman stood up straight and put her hand on her hip. Fr. Elijah turned to George and said, “Would you like to know what’s going on?”

The young woman said, “Yes, I’d love to hear you explain this.”

Fr. Elijah said, “George, the elephant population in Sri Lanka is in some peril. They’re not being hunted for their ivory, let alone for their meat, but there is a limited amount of land, and farmers and elephants are both trying to use an area of land that makes it difficult for them to both support themselves. So some people tried to think about whether there was a way to make a win-win situation, and make the elephants an economic asset. They asked themselves whether elephants produce anything. And it turns out that something that eats the enormous amount of food an elephant eats does, in fact, produce a lot of something.”

George said, “I don’t see the connection. Have I just missed that you’re changing the subject?”

The young woman said, “He hasn’t changed the subject.”

Fr. Elijah said, “They’re using it to make hand-crafted artisan paper, colored and available in a heart shape, which you can buy online at MrElliePooh.com if you’re interested.”

George looked at Fr. Elijah in shock and awe.

The woman said, “Grandpappy, you are such a pest!”

Fr. Elijah lightly placed an arm around her shoulder and said, “George, I’d like to introduce you to my granddaughter Abigail. She has a face as white as alabaster, raven-black hair, and lips are red as blood. And she has many merits besides being fun to pick on.”

Abigail stuck out her tongue at her grandfather and then shifted to his side. “And my grandfather does many fine things besides be obnoxious… Can’t live with him, can’t shoot him… You should get to know him, if you haven’t.” She gave him a gentle squeeze. “There are brownies today, George, and they’re great! Can I get you some?”

George read in Brocéliande, and wandered in the wood, and the castle of Calix College, and the surrounding city. Fr. Elijah began to introduce fasting, and George found something new in his struggles… and began to make progress. Nor was that the only thing in George’s life. He began to find the Middle Ages not too different from his own… and he was puzzled when he read in Brocéliande:

And in that wood anon saw Sir Yvain a lion fighting against a primeval serpent, and the serpent breathed fire against the lion his heel, and a baleful cry did the lion wail. Then Lord Yvain thought in his heart of which animal he should aid, and in his heart spake, “The lion is the more natural of the twain.” And anon he put his resources on the side of the lion, and with his sword he cleft the ancient serpent in twain and hew the serpent his head in seven, and warred against the wicked wyrm until he were reduced to many small bits. And he cleaned his sword of the serpent his venomous filth, and anon the lion kept him at his side.

And anon Sir Yvain slept and an advision saw: an old woman, whose colour was full of life and whose strength intact and yet who were wizened, riding upon a serpent and clothed in a robe black as coal, and spake and said, “Sir Yvain, why have ye offended me? Betake ye as my companion.” Then Sir Yvain refused her and there was a stench as brimstone aflame. Then a woman clad in white, riding astride a lion, new as white snow did courtesy and said, “Sir Yvain, I salute thee.” And about her was a fragrance of myrrh.

Anon Sir Yvain awoke, and sore amazed was he, and none could interpret his advision.

George spoke with Fr. Elijah, and asked him what the passage meant. Fr. Elijah said, “What does this passage mean? You know, that isn’t as big a question in Orthodoxy as you think… but I’ll try to answer. In fact, I think I’ll answer in a homily.”

“It had better be impressive.”

“Fine. I’ll preach it as impressive as you want.”

“When?”

“On Christmas.”

That evening, George called Fr. Elijah to say that he was going home for Christmas… and then, later in the week, said, “Fr. Elijah? Do you know anybody who could keep me? My parents were going to buy me a ticket home with frequent flier mileage on an airline, but my grandfather is ill and my mother used up those miles getting a ticket… and money is tight… I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

“Well, you could talk with your College and try to get special permission to stay over break… but I’d prefer if you stayed with me. Because we agreed that I would only preach on the Arthurian legends, including your Old Law and New Law, if you were there… and I was so looking forward to preaching a Christmas homily on the Arthurian legends.”

“Can’t you preach it without me?”

“We agreed and shook hands. I have that homily for Christmas, but only if you’re there.”

“Um… I would be an intruding—”

“George, I am a priest because I love God and I love people. And I do meet people quite a lot, but my house is empty now. It would be nice to have some young energy and someone to share more than a Christmas dinner with?”

“Are you sure?”

“You know how to get to my place. I’ll see you whenever you want to come over.”

On Christmas, Fr. Elijah preached,

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Christ is born! Glorify him!

In the Arthurian legends, there is a story of a knight who sees a serpent fighting a lion, kills the serpent, and wins a kind response from the lion. In some versions the knight has a vision in which one woman appears on the serpent and another on the lion, and we learn that these women represent the Old Law and the New Law.

What are the Old Law and the New Law? One can say the Torah or Law of Moses, and the Gospel, and that is true up to a point, but the “Old Law” is not just a take on Judaism. Sir Palomides, a Saracen, described with profound confusion between Islam and paganism (and the problem with Islam is not that it is pagan but that it is not pagan enough—it is more emphatic about there being one God, even more than the one God is), becomes a Christian and is asked to renounce the Old Law and embrace the New Law. Even if Sir Palomides is in no sense a Jew.

In the ancient world, it is not enough to say that the Orthodox Church understood itself as the fulfillment of Judaism, politically incorrect as that may be. The Orthodox Church was even more fully the fulfillment of paganism, and if you understand what was going on in Plato, you understand that paganism was deepening. The Orthodox Church is the place where that final deepening of paganism took place. And I would like to explain for a moment why Orthodoxy is pagan and neo-“pagan” forms like Druidry aren’t.

The popular stereotype is that paganism was merry and free until Christianity’s grim hand came down, and that’s like saying that difficult toil was carefree until someone came along and with a grim hand invited people to a feast. Pagan virtues—courage, justice, wisdom, moderation—are retained in Christianity, but they are not the virtues of joy by themselves. C.S. Lewis said that if you’re not going to be a Christian, the next best thing is to be a Norseman, because the Norse pagans sided with the good gods, not because they were going to win, but because they were going to lose. The Norse decision was to meet the Day of Doom, called Ragnarok, and go down fighting on the right side. And so the Norse have a tale of the war-god Tyr who took and kept an oath even at the price of letting a wolf bite off his right hand, and there is something very much like ancient paganism in keeping an oath though it cost your right hand.

What Orthodoxy offered paganism in the ancient world was precisely not a grim hand flattening everything, but retaining the virtue already recognized in paganism while deepening them with faith, hope, and love that live the life of Heaven here on earth. The Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love are the virtues that can see beauty, that bring Heaven down to earth, that can call for the whole Creation to worship God: as we sing at the Eucharist, joining the Song that summons the host of angels, sun, moon and stars, heavens and waters above the heavens, sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command, mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, beasts and all cattle, creeping things and flying fowl, kings and all people, princes and rulers, young men and maidens, old men and children—all called in the Psalmist’s summons to praise the Lord.

If you want to know how today’s “neo-paganism” can fail to be pagan, I would recall to you the Medieval Collectibles website which offers a medieval toilet cover so you can have a real medieval coat of arms on your, um, “throne.” The website’s marketing slogan is “Own a piece of history,” but you’re not owning a piece of history… or think of the interior decorator who was told, “I want an authentic colonial American bathroom,” to which the decorator replied, “Ok, so exactly how far from the house do you want it?”

Some have noted that the majority of books written by Orthodox today are by Western converts, and there is a reason for that. The Reformation almost created literate culture, but the opposite of literate is not illiterate, but oral, in a way that neo-paganism may want to create but is awfully hard to recreate. Even in its spiritual reading the Orthodox Church remains an oral culture in its core while it uses writing: many of its most devout would never write a book, and even now, sensible Orthodox will answer the question, “What should I read to understand Orthodoxy?” by saying “Don’t read, at least not at first, and don’t ever let reading be the center of how you understand Orthodoxy. Come and join the life of our community in liturgy.” Orthodoxy is not better than classical paganism in this regard, but it is like classical paganism and it keeps alive elements of classical paganism that neo-paganism has trouble duplicating. (A neo-“pagan” restoration of oral culture bears a hint of… I’m not sure how to describe it… an oxymoron like “committee to revitalize” comes close.) After years of the West tearing itself away from nature, people in the West are trying to reconnect with nature, and some neo-“pagans” are spearheading that. But look at Orthodoxy. Come and see the flowers, the water and oil, the beeswax candles and herbs, the bread and wine that are at the heart of Orthodox worship: the Orthodox Church has not lost its connection with the natural world even as it uses technology, and it may even have a fuller connection with the natural world than paganism had; classical Rome could sow salt in the soil of Carthage and go out of their way to pollute out of spite, which even environmentally irresponsible companies rarely do today. Which isn’t getting into the full depth of a spiritually disciplined connection to nature like that of St. Symeon the New Theologian—in the Orthodox Church we call him “new” even though he’s from the fourteenth century—but it’s missing the point to ask if Orthodoxy is pagan because of the role of the saints in worshiping God. If you want the deep structure, the culture, the way of life, of paganism, the place where you will find it most alive is precisely Orthodoxy.

The Arthurian author Charles Williams makes a very obscure figure, the bard Taliesin, the pilgrim who comes to Byzantium sent to bring a treasure and returns with the Pearl of Great Price, the New Law. In Stephen Lawhead, it is Merlin who appears as the culmination of the Druidic Order and the apex of the Old Law: the old learned brotherhood is disbanded and Merlin proclaims the New Law, and this is really not just a story. The Evangelical Orthodox Church was formed when a group of Protestants tried to do something very Protestant, reconstruct the original Christian Church through studying old documents. Very Protestant. And they came to a certain point, that when they quizzed an Orthodox priest, they realized something. And the Evangelical Orthodox Church entered the Orthodox Church because they realized that the Old Law of Protestant searching to reconstruct the ancient Church needed to be fulfilled in what they realized was the New Law. The Holy Order of MANS—MANS is an acronym, but not in English; it stands for Mysterion, Agape, Nous, Sophia, some terms from Greek that are deep enough to be hard to translate, but something like “profound mystery, divine love, spiritual eye, wisdom.” Do these mean something Christian? Do they mean something esoteric? In fact the Holy Order of MANS was something of both, and they pushed their tradition deeper and deeper… until the Holy Order of MANS was dissolved and many of its people followed their leader’s sense that their Old Law led to this New Law. If you know the story of the Aleut religion in Alaska, the shamans—and it is difficult to explain their “shamans” in contemporary terms; perhaps I should refer to them as people who had tasted spiritual realities—said that certain people were coming and to listen to the people who were to come. And the people the shamans foretold were Orthodox monks who had in turn tasted of spiritual realities, such as St. Herman of Alaska. Not, necessarily, that moving from paganism to Orthodoxy was that big of a change for them. It wasn’t. But the Aleuts recognized in these monks something that was very close to their way of life, but something that could deepen it, and it was because of their depth in their Old Law as pagans that they were ready for an Orthodox New Law. Stephen Lawhead has a lot of carefully researched history—at times I wished for a little less meticulous research and a little more riveting story—but whether or not anything like this can be confirmed archaeologically in the Celtic lands, the same kind of thing can be confirmed, even as having happened very recently.

But when I say “Merlin,” many of you do not think of the herald of the New Law, and for that matter many of the older sources do not do this either. If a boy today is enchanted by just one character from the Arthuriad, it is ordinarily not King Arthur, Pendragon though he may be, nor Sir Galahad, who achieved the Holy Grail in some versions, nor Sir Lancelot, who is proven to be the greatest knight in the world, nor the Fisher-King, nor the fairy enchantress Morgana le Fay, nor King Arthur’s peerless Queen Guinevere, whose name has become our “Jennifer.” It is the figure of Merlin.

Today, if you ask what Merlin was—and I intentionally say, “what,” not “who,” for reasons I will detail—the usual answer is, “a wizard.” But if you look at the stories that were spread from the Celtic lands, the answer is, “a prophet.” In the Old Testament, one of the prophets protests, “I am neither a prophet, nor a prophet’s son,” and another prophet says something to the Lord that somehow never gets rendered clearly in English Bible translations never choose to get right: “You violated my trust, and I was utterly betrayed.” The Hebrew word for prophet, ‘nabi‘, means “called one,” and one never gets the sense in reading the Old Testament prophets that the prophets, when they were children, said, “I want to grow up to be a prophet” the way people today say, “I want to be the President of the United States.”

And this idea of Merlin as prophet is not just a different or a more Christianly correct word. The Arthurian legends may be thought of today as “something like fiction;” even when people in the Middle Ages questioned their historical accuracy, those people were throwing a wet blanket on something a great many people took as literal fact. There is a book called The Prophecies of Merlin, which was taken extremely seriously for centuries, as the word of a prophet. And one gets the sense that in modern terms Merlin’s identity was not a self-definition that he chose, not in modern terms, but something that was thrust upon him.

It may sound strange to some if I say that the earlier attempt to build a castle on Merlin’s blood, and Merlin’s later calling a castle out of the wind, relate to Christ. But if you think I am pounding a square peg into a round hole, consider this: Sir Galahad, whom some consider a painfully obvious Christ-figure, whose strength is as the strength of ten because his heart is pure and who is always strong in the face of temptation, enters the world after Sir Lancelot, the greatest knight in the world and a man who goes above and beyond the call of duty of faithfulness in his devotion to another man’s wife, goes to a castle, is given the Arthurian equivalent of a date-rape pill in the form of a potion that makes him think his hostess is the woman he’s been carrying on with, and that night sires Galahad. You may call this a magical birth story if you like, but it doesn’t give us much advance notice that the son born will turn out to be the Arthurian icon of purity who will achieve the Grail.

So how is Merlin, who reeks of magic, introduced? In the oldest surviving work that flourished outside of Celtic circles, in fact written by a Celtic bishop, Merlin appears when King Vortigern searches for a boy without a father, and hears Merlin being teased for being without a father. And let me be clear, this is not because his father has passed away. We learn that the Devil wished to be incarnate, could only come into the world of a virgin, found a virgin who was spiritually pure, having only slipped in her prayers once, and thus the person meant to be the anti-Christ was conceived. The Church, just in time, said powerful prayers and the boy, born of a virgin without a sire, commanded all the power over the natural world he was meant to, but would serve the good. Now is anyone going to say that that’s not a reference to Christ? Merlin is most interesting because of how the story itself places him in the shadow of Christ.

One thing that’s very easy to overlook is that in the story where there’s a terrible storm and Christ is sleeping in the front of the boat while his disciples are asking if he doesn’t care that they were going to die, is not just that the disciples were right: in that part of the world there were storms that could very quickly flood a boat and kill people when the boat sank. Christ stands up, and says something to the storm before rebuking the disciples for their lack of faith. And that’s when the disciples really began to be afraid. Mark’s Gospel is the one Gospel with the simplest, “I don’t speak Greek very well” Greek, and at this point he uses the King James- or Shakespeare-style Greek Old Testament language to say that when Jesus commands the storm to be still and it actually obeys him, that is when they are most terrified.

Before Jesus stopped the storm, they were afraid enough; they knew the storm they saw was easily enough to kill them. But this was nothing compared to the fear out of which they asked, “Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?” This person who had been teaching them had just displayed a command over nature that left them wondering who or what he was, a “what” that goes beyond today’s concern about “who am I?” and has something that cannot be reached by angst-ridden wrestling with who you are.

Something like that question is at the heart of debates that people argued for centuries and are trying to reopen. What, exactly, was Jesus? Was he an ancient sage and teacher? Was he a prophet? A healer or a worker of wonders? Someone who had drunk of deeper spiritual realities and wanted to initiate others into the same? Was he something more than a man, the bridge between God and his world?

The answer taken as final was the maximum possible. It was “Every one of these and more.” It pushed the envelope on these even as it pushed into a claim for the maximum in every respect: Christ was maximally divine, maximally human, maximally united, and maximally preserved the divine and human while being the final image both for our understanding of what it is to be God and what it is to be human.

And what, finally, would we have if we deepened Merlin? What if he were the son, not of the worst finite creature, but of the best and infinite Creator? What if he had not simply power over nature but were the one through whom the world was created and in whom all things consist? What if we were dealing with, not the one who prophesied that a few would find the Holy Grail, but the one who gave the Holy Grail and its gifts that are still with us? What if Merlin were made to be like the pattern he is compared to? When Merlin is deepened far enough, he becomes Christ.

The Christian lord of Cyprus was out hawking when his dearly beloved hawk—I don’t know if the hawk was a merlin, but I can say that a merlin is a type of hawk—became entangled in the brush in the wood. Loving the hawk dearly, he ordered that the branches be cut away so that he would still have this hawk, and when that was done, not only was his hawk found, but an icon showing the Queen and Mother of God on a throne, and the Divine Child enthroned upon her lap and an angel on either side. They found what they were looking for, but they also found a singularly majestic icon of the Incarnation.

The Christ Mass, the Nativity, is an invasion in the dead of winter. It is the feast of the Incarnation, or more properly one of the feasts of the Incarnation, which is not something that stopped happening once after the Annunciation when the Mother of God bore the God-man in her womb.

Everything that the Christ Mass stands for will eventually be made plain, but the Christ Mass is a day of veiled glory. When God became man, he was born in a stable. When Christ returns, he will appear riding on the clouds. When he came, a choir of angels proclaimed the news to shepherds and a few knees bowed. When he returns, rank upon rank of angels will come in eternal radiant glory and every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the manifest glory of God the Father. When he came once, a star heralded the hour of his birth. When he returns, the stars will fall as ripe figs from a tree and the sky itself will recede as a vanishing scroll. Every thing that is a secret not will be made plain, but he first came in secret…

…and he comes today in secret, hidden in us. For the Incarnation was not finished after the Annunciation, but unfolds still as Christ is incarnate in the Church, in the saints like St. Herman of Alaska, a wonderworker who was seen carrying logs weighing much more than himself, stopped a forest fire, calmed a stormy sea, and left behind a body preserved from corruption as it was on display for a month at room temperature, and left behind much of the Aleut Orthodox community that remains to this day—and also in us. And the Incarnation is still unfolding today. The castle of the Arthurian world is more than stone walls and a porticullis; the castle is almost everything we mean by city, or society, or community. And it is the castle writ large that we find in the Church, not only a fortress waging war against the Devil but a people ruled by her Lord. This Castle is at once founded upon a fluid more precious than ichor, not the blood of a boy without a father but the blood of a God-man, without father on the side of his mother and without mother on the side of his Father. It is the Castle still being built by the wind of his Spirit still blowing—and remember that the world behind the Medieval West did not always stow “spirit” and “wind” in sealed watertight compartments: the wind blows where it will and the Spirit inspires where it will, so this Castle has a Spirit blowing through it that is more windlike than wind itself.

And until the Last Judgment, when every eye will see him, even those that pierced him, it is his will to be incarnate where he is hidden behind a veil to those who cannot see him: incarnate in the Church and in each of us, called to be his saints, and called to become Christ.

Christ is born! Glorify him!

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Fr. Elijah turned around, stopped, bent his head a moment, and at last turned back. “Oh, and one more thing… George’s number is in the parish directory, and these homilies that talk about King Arthur and his court have been all his fault. If there’s anything at all that you don’t like about them, I invite you to call him at all hours of the day and night to grouse at him for foisting such terrible ideas on me.”

That evening, George came, and after some hesitancies, said, “When can I become Orthodox?”

“At Pascha. We can continue working, and you will be received in the Church.”

George thanked him, and began to walk out.

“Um, Fr. Elijah, aren’t you somewhat surprised?”

“George, I was waiting for you to see that you wanted to become Orthodox. Go back to your reading.”

The Christmas break passed quickly, and the first class after break was the introduction to computer science. The professor said, “Most of my students call me Dr. Blaise, although you can use my last name if you’re comfortable. I wanted to offer a few remarks.

“Many of your professors think their class is your most important class, and that entitles them to be your number one priority in homework and demands outside the classroom. I don’t. I believe this class is a puzzle piece that fits into a larger puzzle. Exactly how it fits in will differ, depending on whether you become a major—which I invite you to consider—or whether you choose an allied major but focus on something other than computer science, or whether your interests lie elsewhere and I am broadening your horizons even if your main interests lie somewhere else. I will try to help give you a good puzzle piece, and in office hours especially I want to support you in helping fit this piece of the puzzle into the broader picture.

“My best student was a mechanic; car and airplane mechanics, for instance, are solving a problem with a system, and I have never been so stunned at how quickly a student learned to debug well as with this mechanic. I’ve found that people who know something about physics, mathematics, or engineering pick up computer work more quickly even if you don’t see a single physics equation in this class: learn physics and programming is a little easier to learn. And it goes the other way too: one of my colleagues in the math department explained that students who know the process of taking something and writing a computer program to reach the desired results, correctly, are prepared to do something similar in mathematics, and take something and write a correct proof to reach the desired results. Learn something in one hard science and you have an advantage in others.”

One student raised her hand. “Yes?” Dr. Blaise asked.

“What about those of us interested in philosophy or religion? What if we’re doing something computers won’t help us with? Are you going to teach us how to use word processors?”

“Well, I’d point out that there is a long tradition of studying mathematics—geometry—as a sort of mental weightlifting before studying philosophy or theology. Or some of my poet friends say that it’s a way of poisoning the mind, and I’ll respect them if they want to say that. But for many of you, it is useful, even if we don’t teach word processing—ask the lab tech for sessions that will teach you how to use computer software. Computer science is about something else; computer science isn’t any more about how to use computers than astronomy is about how to use telescopes.”

The student raised her hand again, slightly, and then put it down.

Dr. Blaise said, “I’d like to hear your thought. If you aren’t convinced, other people probably aren’t convinced either, and it will do everybody good to have it out in the open.”

“Um… But why does…” She paused, and Dr. Blaise smiled. “I want to study English.”

“Good stuff. So does my daughter. It’s a bit of a cross-cultural encounter, and I think it can benefit English students for the same reason my majors benefit from taking English classes. But never mind programming specifically; I want to talk about how the disciplines can integrate. Programming won’t help you the same way as some of the humanities will, but I’d like to talk about how things might fit together.

“I saw one of your English professors, a lovely medievalist who knows the Arthurian legends well. She was talking with one of the campus ethicists, who has interests in the history of moral theology. The topic of discussion? One that you might wince at, on the short list of positions the Catholic Church is unpopular for: contraception. And the ethicist said he’d found something he thought the medievalist literature professor might find interesting.

“The history of contraception, like almost any other big question, involves a lot of other things. And one of those things involves a suggestion by John Noonan, not for one of several proposed answers for a question, but of an answer to a puzzle that has no other answers, at least as of the time Noonan wrote.

“The vision of courtly love, and what is celebrated in that love between a man and a woman—probably another man’s wife, for what it’s worth—is an ideal that was all about celebrating ‘love’, and in this celebration of ‘love,’ there was a big idea of ‘Play all you want; we will encourage and celebrate play, whether or not you’re in marriage; just be sure that you do it in a way that won’t generate a child.’

“Scholars do have difficulty keeping a straight face in the idea that the courtly romances are coded messages about secret Cathar teachings. They aren’t. But they flourished as nowhere before in a land where something of Catharism was in the air, and, like contraception, the idea of celebrating ‘love’ and encouraging people, ‘Play, but do it in a way that don’t generate a child’ is not exactly Cathar, but is the sort of thing that could come if Catharism was in the air.

“And, the ethicist went further, the Arthurian romances are done in such a way that it is very difficult to demonstrate any clear and conscious authorial understanding of Cathar teachings, let alone coded messages sent to those ‘in the know’… but that doesn’t mean that Catharism had nothing to do with it. And not just because strict Cathars would have taken a dim view of this way of taking their ball and running with it. A very dim view, for that matter.

“Catharism, called Gnosticism as it appeared in the ancient world and various other things as it resurfaces today, has various things about it, and not just wanting to celebrate love to high Heaven while understanding this wonderful ‘love’ as something which one should be able to do without generating children. That’s not the only thing, and it is one point of including Cathar elements without doing them very well.

“Catharism, or Gnosticism or whatever the day’s version of it is called, is deeply connected with magic, and this occult element has a lot of ideas, or something like ideas, if you get very deep into it. And in the Arthurian legends, there is an occult element, but it isn’t done very well. There are dweomers all over the place, and Merlin and almost every woman work enchantments, not to mention that all sorts of items have magical ‘virtues’, but the English professor had almost no sense that the authors were really involved with the occult themselves. It was kind of a surface impression that never had any of the deeper and darker features, or the deeper secret doctrines of one in the know. It kind of portrays magic the way a poorly researched TV show portrays a faroff land—there may be a sense of interest and enchantment untainted by actual understanding of what is being portrayed.

“And besides that surface impression, there is something of self-centered pride. The only people who really have a pulse are nobles living in large measure for themselves, knights who are trying to do something impressive. Commerce never seems to really taint the screen of luxury; furthermore there is a sense that being in fights for one’s glory is no great sin, and it doesn’t really matter what those fights do to the others. It’s a very different view of fighting from ‘just war.’

“The Arthurian legends are undoubtedly classics of world literature, and it is terribly reductive to say that they’re simply a bad version of Cathar doctrine. That denigration of their literary qualities is not justified, just as dismissing Star Wars as just a bit of violent Gnosticism or Catharism or whatever is out of line. Star Wars would never succeed if it were just dressed up Gnosticism.

“But it does raise the question of whether the literature of courtly love, so foundational to how people can understand ‘love’ today and understand what it means to celebrate ‘love’ and say that the Catholic Church hates love between men and women if it will not recognize that contraception will help that love be celebrated with less unwelcome ‘consequences’… It raises the question, not of whether the literature is bad literature and not worth study, but whether it is very good literature that contains something fatal.”

There was one more question, and Dr. Blaise began discussing computer science. At least George believed later that the professor had been discussing computer science, and trusted others’ reports on that score.

But George did not hear a word more of what Dr. Blaise said that day.

The computer science class was a night class, and when it was finished, George found himself surprised when he entered the parsonage.

Fr. Elijah was sitting, his back to the door, staring into the fireplace. A large volume, looking like an encyclopedia volume, was sitting open on Fr. Elijah’s sparsely appointed desk. Fr. Elijah, his back still to the door, said, “Come in, George. What is the matter?”

George said, “I hope I didn’t interrupt—”

Fr. Elijah said, “I was just resting a bit after reading something. St. Maximus’s language gives me such trouble.”

George rushed over to the desk. “Maybe I can help.” He looked, and looked again, until he realized the volume had columns of Latin and Greek. The volume was printed, but it looked old, and there were worm holes.

“Come in and sit down, George. You don’t need to be reading St. Maximus the Confessor quite yet, even if your Greek is better than mine, or you find the Latin easier. Now sit down. You didn’t come here so you could help me understand the Greek, even if I wouldn’t be surprised if, bright lad as you are, you know Greek a good deal better than I do.”

“It’s Greek to me,” George said, forcing a smile, and then shaking. Fr. Elijah rose, turned around, and said, “Sit down in my chair, George, and enjoy the fire. I’ll step out into the kitchen, make some hot cocoa, and then we can talk. I wish my cat were still around; she was a real sweetheart, and she would sit in your lap and purr. Even if it was the first time she met you.” Fr. Elijah left, silently, and went about making hot cocoa. He returned, holding two mugs, and gave one mug to George. “I put extra marshmallows in yours.”

Then Fr. Elijah sat down in a smaller chair, in the corner, and sat, listening.

George blurted out, after some silence, “I think the Arthurian stuff I read may be Gnostic.”

Fr. Elijah took a sip.

“One of the people in my class said that Arthurian literature arose because of the Cathars.”

Fr. Elijah took another sip.

“Or something like that. It seems that a lot of what people do as glorious things in courtly literature is Gnostic.”

Fr. Elijah took a slow sip, and asked, “Like what?”

“Well, the ideal of love is big on celebrating love, only it’s better if children don’t get in the way, and you’re careful to keep children out of the way. And there’s magic all over the place, and nobles are superior.”

Fr. Elijah took another sip.

“At least that’s how I remember it, only I’m probably wrong.”

Fr. Elijah stroked his beard for a moment and said, “Well, that’s a big enough question that we should respect the matter by not trying to sort it out all at once. Let’s not assume that because it is so big a question, we are obligated to rush things. If it is a big question, we are more obligated not to rush things.”

Why?”

“Ever hear of Arius or Arianism?”

“You mean racism?”

“No, not that spelling. A-R-I-U-S and A-R-I-A-N-I-S-M. The race-related bit is spelled with a ‘Y’.”

“Ok.”

“Arius was a deacon who was really worried that his bishop was saying something wrong. So he rushed to correct his bishop, and in his rush to correct the Orthodox Church founded a heresy. He gets it worse in the Orthodox liturgy than even Judas; various other heretics are accused of being taught by Arius.

“There were two mistakes he made. The biggest and worst mistake was fighting the Orthodox Church when they said he was wrong, and that was the real problem with Arius. But another mistake was trying to rush and fix the problem of heresy he thought his bishop was guilty of.

“Holier men than either of us have rushed and said something heretical in their rush job. I’m not sure either of us are going to go warring against the Church and trying to fix it has thought about our correction and said ‘No,’ but if you’ve raised a big question, or your class has, that’s all the more reason not to rush.”

George said, “So what should we do?”

Fr. Elijah said, “Take a deep breath and a sip of cocoa,” and waited. Then he said, “Now what is it that has you so wound up?”

“I thought there was really something in what I was reading.”

“There probably is.”

“But the idea of love, and all the magic, are some sort of second-rate Cathar stuff.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Well, I’m not sure… um… well, they’re big on the experience of love.”

Fr. Elijah sank a little into his chair. “In other forms of Gnosticism, there is an idea of some things as experience… and they are understood as experiences, significant as experiences, and not as significant for other reasons… and I can see some pretty Gnostic assumptions feeding into that ideal of love. You may be right…”

“But isn’t love to be celebrated? How else could it be celebrated?”

“In the New Testament times, celibacy was encouraged despite the fact that it was giving up something big. But the something big is not the obvious ‘something big’ people would be worried about giving up today… it’s having children to carry on one’s name. There is a good deal more…. People, even with hormones, were interested in some other things besides pleasurable experiences. There is more I could explain about what else besides ‘being in love’ could make a happy marriage between happy people, but… Sorry, I’m ranting, and you’re not happy.”

“Fr. Elijah, if what I’m saying makes sense, then why on earth did you preach those homilies? Were you lying… um, I mean…”

“Don’t look for a nicer word; if you think I might have been lying, I would really rather have you bring it out into the open than have it smouldering and damaging other things. No, I’m not angry with you, and no, I wasn’t lying.”

“Then why—”

“George, allow me to state the very obvious. Something was going on in you. And still is. It seemed, and seems to me, that you were coming alive in reading the Arthurian legends. As a pastor or priest or spiritual father or whatever you want to call me, I made an appropriate response and preached homilies that blessed not just you, but also several other people as well. Now, maybe, you are shattered, or maybe you are ready to begin hungering for something more. You know how, in classic Gnosticism, there’s a distinction the Gnostics hold between the so-called ‘hylic’ people who don’t have much of any spiritual life, meaning people who aren’t Christian in any sense, and the ‘psychic,’ meaning soulish, not ESP people, of Christians who have a sort of half-baked spiritual awakening, and the ‘pneumatic,’ meaning spiritual, Gnostics who are the real spiritual elite?”

George said, “It doesn’t surprise me. It’s absolute bosh from beginning to end. It has nothing to do with the truth.”

Fr. Elijah closed his eyes for a moment. “George, I am not quite sure I would say that.”

“What, you’re going to tell me the Gnostics had it right?”

“They had more right than you think; they’re seductively similar to Christianity. They wouldn’t have anywhere near the effect they’re having if it were any other way.

“You know how Orthodox Christianity is patted on the head as a sort of lesser outer revelation that is permissible for those who have reached the outer courts but are not ready to enter the inner sanctum of the Gnostics’ secret knowledge? That’s backwards. The Gnostic ‘knowledge’ might be excusable for people who have not reached the inner reaches of Orthodoxy. It is the Gnostic that is the light-weight spiritual reality. And it is the light-weight spiritual reality that is the Old Law which the New Law fulfills more than the Old Law can fulfill itself. You reacted to something in the Arthurian legends because there is something there, and if you now know that they are not the New Law, I will ask you to excuse me if I still hold those legends to be an Old Law that finds its completion in the New Law. The highest does not stand without the lowest, and part of the New Law is that it makes a place for the Old Law. Including that spark of life you saw in the Arthurian legends.”

“But why preach as if you found so much in them? I were to ask you to do something silly, like preach a sermon on how things have been censored out of the Bible, would you do that too?” George took a breath. “I’m sorry; you can change the subject if you want.”

Fr. Elijah said, slowly, “I have a question for you, and I want you to think carefully. Are you ready for the question?”

George said, “Yes.”

“Can we know, better than God, what the Bible should say?”

“No.”

“But quite a lot of people do think that. A lot of people seem to be trying to help the Bible doing a better job of what it’s trying so hard to say, but can’t quite manage. Or something like that.”

“I’ve read some liberals doing that.”

“It’s not just liberals. Let me give one example. George, have you been big in Creation and evolution debates?”

“Not really.”

“Christians have several options, but for the Newsweek crowd, there are only two options. Either you’re a young earther, or you’re an evolutionist, and the new ‘intelligent design’ is just the old creationism with a more euphemistic name. Rather depressing for a set of options, but let’s pretend those are the only two options.

“Now are you familiar with what this means for dinosaurs?”

“Um…”

“The connection isn’t obvious. We’ve seen, or at least I have, cartoons in magazines that have cave men running from T. rexes or hunting a brontosaurus. Which is, to an evolutionist, over a hundred times worse than having cave men whining loudly about the World Wide Wait. There’s a long time between when the last dinosaurs of any kind, and the first humans of any kind, were around. As in hundreds of millions of years longer than humans have been around in any form. On that timeline, it’s a rather big mistake to have humans interacting with dinosaurs.

“But if you have a young earth timeline, with the whole world created in six days, then it’s not such a ludicrous idea that humans might have interacted with dinosaurs… and your English Bible offers an interesting reason to believe that humans have seen living dinosaurs. Have you read the book of Job?”

George said, “Um, no. It’s one of a lot of…”

Fr. Elijah interrupted. “There’s a lot in the Bible to read, and even people who read the Bible a lot don’t read it quickly unless they’re speed-reading, and then it still takes them a couple of weeks. If you can call that ‘reading the Bible;’ I’ve tried it and I think it’s one of the sillier things I’ve tried—a sort of spiritual ‘get rich quick’ scheme. I was smart enough to stop. But if you check your English Bible, you will see in Job a creature called the ‘behemoth,’ perhaps because the translators on the King James Version didn’t know how to translate it, and the ‘behemoth,’ whatever that may be, is a mighty impressive creature. We are told that it is not afraid though the river rushes against it, suggesting that whatever the behemoth is, it is a big beast. And we are told that it stiffens or swings its tail like a cedar, the cedar being a magnificent, and quite enormous, tree which reaches heights of something like one hundred fifty to two hundred feet. And regardless of where you stand on Creation and evolution, the only creature that has ever walked the earth with a tail that big, or anywhere near that big, is one of the bigger dinosaurs. So the Bible offers what seems to be excellent evidence that people have seen dinosaurs—alive.

“Which is all very lovely, of course given to the English Bible. But first, the ‘behemoth’ is in fact an overgrown relative of the pig, the hippopotamus, and second, it isn’t really talking about his tail. The same basic image is translated unclearly in the Song of S—”

George spit out a mouthful of soda and took a moment to compose himself. “I’m sorry. Did I—”

Fr. Elijah looked around. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that as you were taking a sip. Let me get you a napkin. Here.”

George said, “Ok, so maybe there are some other vivid images that have been, bowlderized—you know, edited for television. Anything more? Were any ideas censored?”

Fr. Elijah said, “A bit murky, but I’m tempted to say ‘yes.’ One idea has been made less clear; there may be other tidbits here and there. A couple of forceful passages that may be interpreted as implying things about contraception don’t come across as clearly. But that may not be censorship; there is a double meaning that is hard to translate correctly in English. I don’t find the English translation strange. But there’s one story in the Old Testament, where the future King David is running from King Saul, who is leading a manhunt and trying to kill David. There are a couple of points that David could have killed Saul, and at one of these points, David’s assistant either encourages David to kill Saul or offers to kill Saul himself, and David says what your English Bible puts as, ‘I will not lay my hand on the Lord’s anointed,’ or something like that. Would you like to know what it says in Hebrew or Greek, or in Latin translation?”

George said, “Um…”

Fr. Elijah got up. “I wasn’t expecting that you would; it’s really not that important or even as impressive as some people think. If you don’t know those languages, it may be easiest to see in the Latin. Aah! Here’s my Latin Bible. Just a minute. Let me get my magnifying glass.” After almost dropping a dark green Bible with golden letters on the cover, and an interminable amount of flipping, he said, “What is this word here?”

“I don’t know Latin.”

“Never mind that. What does that word look like?”

“It’s a lowercase version of ‘Christ,’ with an ‘um’ added.”

“Yes indeed. And at the top it says the name of an Old Testament book, in Latin ‘Liber Samuhelis.’ What do you think the word you pointed out means?”

“I told you that I don’t know Latin.”

“What’s an obvious guess?”

“Um…” George paused. “Christ.”

“Yes indeed.”

“What does the lowercase ‘c’ mean?”

“It means nothing. As a matter of language-loving curiosity, the text is in Latin; either in the manuscripts or in this printed Bible, capitalizations follow a different rule, and ‘christus’/’christum’/… isn’t automatically capitalized. Now why is the Old Testament book of Samuel using the equivalent of the ‘Christ’?”

“Because the Latin is messed up?”

“Ernk. Sorry. Bzzt. Thank you for playing, but no. The Latin is fine. It’s the English that’s messed up. The Latin correctly translates, ‘I will not lay my hand on,’ meaning violently strike, ‘the Lord’s Christ.’ Didn’t you know that the word ‘Christ’ means ‘anointed’?”

“Yes, but…”

“The Bible, Old Testament and New, uses ‘Christ’ for those who are anointed—the Son of God, prophets, priests, kings, and ultimately the people of God. The whole point of becoming Christian is to become by grace what Christ is by nature, and even if we can never be perfect in Christ, there is something real that happens. If you ever become Orthodox, you will be ‘Christed,’ or in the related and standard term, ‘chrismated,’ meaning, ‘anointed with holy oil.’ And, at a deeper level, the anointing is about anointing with the Holy Spirit, as Christ was. And the New Testament in particular says a lot about Christ, but the Bible calls Christ or Christs others who are anointed. But the Bible translations, coincidentally by people who have much less room for this in their theology, introduce a division that isn’t in Hebrew, Greek, or the Catholic Church’s Latin, and translate the Hebrew ‘moshiah’ or the Greek ‘christos’ one way when it refers to the one they think is ‘really’ Christ, and another way when it refers to other Christs even if what the text says is, quite literally, ‘Christ.’ They introduce a very clear divide where none exists in the text, using a language shenanigan not entirely different from some mistranslations translating ‘God’ with a big ‘G’ when the Bible talks about the Father, and a ‘god’ with a little ‘g’ when the Bible refers to Christ. Perhaps your Bible’s translators still say ‘anointed one,’ but there is some degree of censorship. The reader is saved the shock of too many correctly translated and explicit statements that we are to be little Christs, Sons of God, living the divine life—there’s a word for the divine life in Greek that is different from the word for mere created life, and that dimension doesn’t seem to come through. It’s not all censorship, but there’s something not quite right about the translators who refuse to either consistently say ‘Christ,’ or else consistently say ‘Anointed One,’ so that the readers never get the something important in the Bible that Western Christianity does not always get. But there is enough mystery in the Bible. Sacred Scripture is unfathomable even apart from relatively few areas where the translators try to make sure that the reader does not get the full force of the what the text is saying. God exceeds our grasp; he is and ever shall be Light, but whenever we try to shine a light to search him out, its beam falls off in darkness, and the God who is Light meets us beyond the cloud of darkness enshrouding him.

“I say this to answer your question, which I know was purely rhetorical. I’d prefer not to scandalize people and have to clean up the pieces later, but even the tough old women you see in our parish aren’t so prissy as you might think. But I want to more directly speak to your intent, and the deep question behind your asking if, because you had hypothetically asked me, I would preach a sermon about the Bible and censorship. I wasn’t crossing my fingers or simply saying what I thought would please you, when I preached about the Arthurian legends, and there is nothing I wish to take back. I really was preaching in good faith.”

“Then I don’t want Brocéliande for now.”

George said, “You may like the book. I don’t. I don’t want it any more.”

“Then may I take a look at it? I would like to have it, to look at. If you don’t want it any more, that’s fine, but you can have it back any time.”

“Fine. Maybe it will be better for you than for me.”

“By the way, what are you doing for Spring Break?”

“Dunno. Do you have any suggestions?”

“There are some truly beautiful places where you could get blasted out of your mind, acquire a couple of new diseases, and if you time it right, come back still in possession of a rather impressive hangover.”

“Um…”

“Yes?”

“Why don’t we just cut to the chase and get to your real suggestion?”

“Aah, yes. It turns out that there’s a finishing school which is offering a week-long intensive course in the gentle art of polite conversation, but—oh, wait, I was going to suggest that to my granddaughter Abigail. I would never make such a suggestion to you. Finishing school—what was I thinking? What I was really wondering was whether you have considered one of the alternative spring breaks.”

“Like Habitat for Humanity? But I have no skill in construction.”

“That’s not really the point. Last I checked, Habitat for Humanity had nothing on their website about how only seasoned construction workers can be of any use.”

“But aren’t there a lot of things that could go wrong?”

“Like what?”

“I might hit myself on the thumb with a hammer.”

“If you’re worried about being at a loss for words, last April Fool’s Day my godson gave me a book listing bad words in something like a thousand languages, and you can borrow it. There are worse things in life than hitting your thumb with a hammer, and if it’s that big of an issue, I’d be happy to ask the head of Habitat for Humanity to refund your wasted time. If you’re worried about getting sunburned, the store next door has an impressive collection of sunscreen containers, giving you options that rival those for dental floss. I personally recommend the SPF 30 in your choice of soft pastel-hued plastic bottles with a delicate floral scent created through a carefully blended confection of unnatural chemicals. I don’t think that Habitat is going anywhere where you’d be in real danger of snakebite, but I can help find a kit you can use to bite the snake back. Have I left something out?”

A week later, and (though he did not tell Fr. Elijah) realizing that Abigail was also a student at Calix College, George returned. Fr. Elijah said, “Why the long face, George? Just a minute while I make some tea.”

“Um, I’m not signed up for the alternative spring break.”

“George, I only asked you to consider… tell me what’s on your mind… if you want to.”

“I was in line, and I just missed signing up.”

Fr. Elijah sat in silence.

“I could have gone, but there was a girl in line after me, and she really wanted to go. I let her have the last slot.”

“Excellent. Some would call it sexist, but I’d call it one of the finer points of chivalry.”

Fr. Elijah paused and then said, “Could you come with me to the house for a second?”

George gulped.

Fr. Elijah led George out to the house and rummaged on a shelf before pulling out a CD. “George, could you put this in the CD player and hit play? I’ve figured out how to use the CD player several times, but I keep forgetting, and I don’t want to keep you waiting.” He handed the CD to George and said, “I’ll be right out. I need to make a phone call.” He stepped into another room and closed the door.

George looked at the CD, did a double take, and looked at the player. He began to hear a rap beat.

As I walk through the valley where I harvest my grain,
I take a look at my wife and realize she’s very plain.
But that’s just perfect for an Amish like me.
You know, I shun fancy things like electricity.
At 4:30 in the morning I’m milkin’ cows.
Jebediah feeds the chickens and Jacob plows… Fool!
And I’ve been milkin’ and plowin’ so long that
Even Ezekiel thinks that my mind is gone.

I’m a man of the land! I’m into discipline!
Got a Bible in my hand and a beard on my chin.
But if I finish all my chores and you finish thine,
Then tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1699!

We been spending most our lives, living in an Amish paradise.
I’ve churned butter once or twice, living in an Amish paradise.
It’s hard work and sacrifice, living in an Amish paradise.
We sell quilts at discount price, living in an Amish paradise.

A local boy kicked me in the butt last week.
I just smiled at him and turned the other cheek!
I really don’t care; in fact, I wish him well.
‘Cause I’ll be laughing my head off when he’s burning in Hell!
But I ain’t never punched a tourist even if he deserved it
An Amish with a ‘tude? You know that’s unheard of!
I never wear buttons but I got a cool hat.
And my homies agree, I really look good in black… Fool!
If you’ll come to visit, you’ll be bored to tears.
We haven’t even paid the phone bill in 300 years
But we ain’t really quaint, so please don’t point and stare;
We’re just technologically impaired!

There’s no phone, no lights, no motorcar,
Not a single luxury,
Like Robinson Caruso,
It’s as primitive as can be!

We been spending most our lives, living in an Amish paradise.
We’re just plain and simple guys, living in an Amish paradise.
There’s no time for sin and vice, living in an Amish paradise.
We don’t fight. We all play nice, living in an Amish paradise.

Hitchin’ up the buggy, churnin’ lots of butter,
Raised a barn on Monday, soon I’ll raise another!
Think you’re really righteous? Think you’re pure in heart?
Well, I know I’m a million times as humble as thou art!
I’m the pious guy the little Amlettes wanna be like,
On my knees day and night, scorin’ points for the afterlife,
So don’t be vain and don’t be whiny,
Or else, my brother, I might have to get medieval on your heinie!

We been spending most our lives, living in an Amish paradise.
We’re all crazy Mennonites, living in an Amish paradise.
There’s no cops or traffic lights, living in an Amish paradise.
But you’d probably think it bites, living in an Amish paradise.

Fr. Elijah walked back into the room and served the tea, smiling gently.

George said, “Um…”

Fr. Elijah said, “Yes?”

“I’m not sure how to put this delicately.”

“Then put it indelicately. Bluntly, if you wish.”

“I hadn’t picked you out for a Weird Al fan.”

“It was a present.”

“Who would buy you a Weird Al CD?”

“A loved one.”

“Um… do you ever do something less spectacular, like play chess?”

“I’m not a big fan of chess, and besides, I’ve visited the chess club at the Episcopalian church, and it seems the Anglican Communion isn’t going to produce that many more good chess players.”

“Why?”

Fr. Elijah sipped his tea. “Can’t tell a bishop from a queen.”

George coughed, sputtered, tried to keep a straight face, and then tried to steer the conversation back. “When were you given the Weird Al CD?”

“For April Fools’ Day. The present is much appreciated.”

“I like Weird Al, but why did you play that?”

“Because I was just on the phone.”

“And?”

“I’ve just arranged for you to spend your Spring Break at an Amish paradise.”

“Um…”

“Yes?”

“Are you joking?”

“No.”

“Are you being serious?”

“Yes.”

“Are you being sadistic again?”

“Yes, I’m being very sadistic.”

Why?

“I’m not saying.”

“I’ll be bored to tears.”

“Perhaps. But boredom can be good, and not just because it can build character.”

“Um… Never mind. I’ve grown rather fond of computers. I’ve found out the hard way that I rather need them.”

“If it’s that hard for you to spend a few days without spam, you can use your cell phone to read all the insulting messages telling you that you can’t handle money, or that you need snake oil diets, or some part of your body is too small, or you’re not man enough for a relationship with a real woman and must content yourself with pixels on a screen. And if you forget leave your cell phone at home, you might be able to borrow one of theirs.”

“Amish don’t use phones or the Internet. They’re ‘just technologically impaired;’ didn’t the song say that?”

“You can ask them; I’m sure one of them would be willing to lend you his cell phone.”

“Um…”

“Let’s forget about that; we can talk about it later if you want. Anyway, after school gets out, come over here with your bag. Someone else is doing some running, and will give you a ride. He’s a bit hard of hearing, so he’s not much good for chatting in the car, but he’s a great guy. But you can gripe to him about how backwards the Amish are.

“Oh, and one more thing… I’m not exactly sending you into bear country, but if one of the workmen were attacked by a bear, I’d be very worried.”

“Um…”

“Yes?”

That seems obvious.”

“But not for the reason you think. I’ll explain why after you return.”

There was a knock on the door, and Fr. Elijah opened it.

“George, I’d like to introduce you to Jehu. Jehu, this is George. Oh, George, I’m sorry for being a pest, but could you open your bag and pull out everything inside?”

George looked at Fr. Elijah, rolled his eyes, and began unpacking.

“Which of these items mean anything at all to you? Which have a story, or were expensive, or were a gift?”

George looked at Fr. Elijah, who stood in silence.

“You can put anything that means anything to you in this closet; it will be here when you get back. I’m not sending you to a den of thieves, but…”

George began shuffling and sorting while Fr. Elijah waited. When he was finished, Fr. Elijah said, “How much does your windbreaker mean to you?”

“It’s new, but I want to have it with me on the trip.”

“Take it off. You have an old sweatshirt or two.”

“Sorry, I insist on this one. It doesn’t mean that much to me.”

Fr. Elijah said, “If you must…”

George said, “I’ve taken enough out. Have a good evening.” He stiffly shook Fr. Elijah’s hand. “You better have a good reason for your odd behavior.”

Fr. Elijah said, “I can explain later, if you need me to.”

George repacked the remaining half of his luggage into the duffle bag, and left with Jehu.

Some days later, Fr. Elijah heard a knock and opened the door. “George, George! How are you? I must hear about your trip. That’s a lovely jeans jacket you have there. Is there a story behind it?”

George gave Fr. Elijah a look that could have been poured on a waffle, and then began quickly taking his coat off.

Fr. Elijah said, “You wouldn’t throw a coat at an old man who doesn’t have the reflexes to block it… I must hear the story about the coat, though.”

George closed his mouth for a second, and then said, “Filthy sadist!”

Fr. Elijah said, “It sounded like you had an interesting trip.”

“Did you call and ask them to be obnoxious?”

“I did no such thing.”

“Honest?”

“I called and asked them to go easy on you.”

“You called and asked them to go easy on me?”

“Well, you seem to have gotten through the matter without getting any black eyes.”

“You call that going easy? These guys are pacifists, right?”

“That depends on your idea of a ‘pacifist’. If you mean that they don’t believe you should use violence to solve conflicts, then yes, they are pacifists.”

George said, “And…”

“But does that make them wimps? In any sense at all?”

“You did say that you would be worried if one of them were attacked by a bear… Why?”

“I’d be worried for the bear.”

George sunk down into his chair.

“You must have some stories to tell.”

“They wanted help raising a barn, and they wouldn’t let me do any of the stunts they were doing without a harness, but when I went to the outhouse, things shook, and when I opened the door, I was over ten feet in the air.”

“Earthquake?”

“Forklift. I don’t know why they had one.”

“Did you ever think you would sit on such a high throne? I have a suspicion that’s higher than even my bishop’s throne.”

“We are not amused.”

“You are using the royal ‘We,’ Your Majesty. Excellent.”

“The first day, I didn’t take off my shirt at work, but I did take off my windbreaker, and when I left, they nailed it to the beams!”

“Excellent. Is that why Your Majesty has a new, handmade jeans jacket?”

George gave Fr. Elijah another look that could have been poured on a waffle.

“I should maybe have told you… They don’t think anything of nailing down any clothing that’s taken off as a practical joke. Did you ever get an opportunity to nail down some clothing or something of theirs?”

“Yes, but like a gentleman, I did not.”

“That was rude of you.”

“You mean they’re offended at what I didn’t do?”

“No; I just said it was rude. They wouldn’t be offended. But what I was going to say is that the women have lots of denim, and are very adept at sewing new clothes; it’s almost like making a paper airplane for them. Or maybe a little bigger of a deal than that. But you seem to be laboring under a sense that since the Amish are such backwards people, they aren’t allowed to have a sense of humor. Were you surprised at the sense of humor they had?”

“Filthy sadist!”

“So did you get bored with nothing interesting to do besides surf the web through your cell phone?”

George said, “Filthy sadist!” Then he paused.

Fr. Elijah sat back and smiled. “George, I believe you have a question.”

George hesitated.

“Yes? Ask anything you want.”

George hesitated again, and asked, “When can I come back?”

Fr. Elijah just laughed.

George walked around, and had a few chats with Abigail on campus. She started to occupy his thoughts more… and George wondered if he really wanted to dismiss all of the literature of courtly love.

He tried to put this out of his mind the next time he saw Fr. Elijah.

He thought he’d pay a visit, and knocked on Fr. Elijah’s door.

Fr. Elijah said, “I’m glad you’re here, George. Did you know that a man-eating tiger got loose on the campus of Calix College?”

George stood up and immediately pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. “Do the police—”

“Sit down, George, and put your cell phone away, although I must commend your gallant impulse. This was before your time, and besides, George, it starved.”

George said, very forcedly, “Ha ha ha.”

“Sit down, please. Have you had any further thoughts about your holiday with the Amish?”

“It seems a bit like King Arthur’s court. Or at least—”

“Why would that be?”

George sat for a while, and said nothing.

“Are you familiar with Far Side comic strips?”

“Yes.”

“I expected so. You like them, right?”

“Yes, but I haven’t read them in a while.”

“Do you remember the strip with its caption, ‘In the days before television’?”

“Can’t put my finger on it.”

“It shows a family, mesmerized, sitting, lying, and slouching around a blank spot where there isn’t a television… I think you’ve had a visit to the days before television. You didn’t even need a time machine.”

George sat in silence for a moment.

Fr. Elijah continued, “If you want, I can show you the technique by which the Bible is censored, and how the translators hide the fact that they’ve taken something out of the text. But do you know the one line that was censored from the movie production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—the Disney one, I mean?”

“I didn’t notice that anything was censored.”

“Well, you’re almost right. Now it seems to be religion that is censored, Christianity having replaced sex as the publishing world’s major taboo, and Disney did not censor one iota of the stuff about Aslan. But there is one line of the book that almost gets into the movie, but then Father Christmas merely makes a smile instead of verbally answering the question. Do you know what that line is?”

“What?”

“‘Battles are ugly when women fight.'”

“Um… I can see why they would want to smooth over that.”

“Why? Battles are ugly when men fight. There is a reason why Orthodox call even necessary fighting ‘the cross of St. George.’ ‘Cross,’ as in a heavy, painful burden. I’ve dealt pastorally with several veterans. They’ve been through something rough, much rougher than some people’s experience with, say, cancer. And it is my unambiguous opinion, and that of every single soldier I’ve spoken to at length, that battles are ugly… whether or not women fight. Therefore, battles are ugly when women fight, and you’d really have to not understand battle, think it’s the same thing as a violent fantasy or watching an action-adventure movie, to deny that battles are ugly when whatever group fights.

“So why make such a big deal over a single line, ‘Battles are ugly when women fight?’ Why is that one line worth censoring when Disney has the guts to leave Aslan untouched? What’s a bigger taboo in the media world than Christ?”

“Umm… I can’t put my finger on it.”

“Ok, let me ask you… What do you think of the Amish women?”

George tried not to stiffen.

“I’m sorry, George, I meant besides that… When you’re my age you can forget that for women to dress very modestly can—”

“Then what did you mean?”

“Imagine one of those women in a fight.”

George tried not to make a face.

Fr. Elijah said, “My understanding is that they’re strong and hard workers, probably a lot stronger than many men you know.”

George said, “Um…”

“Would you deny that they are strong? And tough, for that matter?”

“No…”

“Does it bother you in the same way to imagine an Amish man having to carry a gun into combat?”

“No. He’d be pretty tough.”

“But the women are pretty strong and tough too. Why does it bother you to think about one of them entering combat and fighting?”

George said nothing.

“The women strike you as stronger and tougher than many men that you know. So they’re basically masculine?”

“Fr. Elijah… the women there almost left me wondering if I’d met real women before, and the men left me wondering if I’d met real men before. I don’t know why.”

“I think I have an answer for why the idea of an Amish woman fighting in battle bothers you more than an Amish man fighting in battle.”

“What?”

“I’ve been reading through Brocéliande. Let me read you a couple of passages.” Fr. Elijah returned momentarily, and flipped through Brocéliande before reading:

Sir Galahad he rode, and rode and rode, until saw he a dragon red. Anon the wyrm with its tail struck a third of the trees against the earth that Sir Galahad they might slay. Anon Sir Galahad warred he against the wyrm.

The dragon charged, and anon Sir Galahad his horse trembled, and Galahad gat him down to earth. The dragon laughed at Sir Galahad’s spear which brake to-shivers, and breathed fire red as Hell.

Sir Galahad gat him behind his shield, and then charged with his sword, though it should break as rotted wood. Anon the dragon swept him, though his helm saved Sir Galahad his head from the rocks.

Then Sir Galahad, who his strength was as the strength of a thousand because his faith was pure, leapt him and wrestled against the beast. Anon the beast turned and tore, against the knight, until the knight he bled sore. Never was such combat enjoined, but the knight held his choke until the dragon his death met.

Fr. Elijah pulled the bookmark out, and found one of several other bookmarks:

Rose the smoke of incense, of frankincense pure the garden did fill. ‘Twere many women present, that hyght Lady Eva, and Lady Elizabeth, and Lady Anna, and Lady Martha, and Queen Mary. Sang they a song, ’twere of one voice, and in that song kept they a garden: in the garden was life. Queen Mary a radiant Child gave suck, and others gave life each in her way.

Verdant was the place of their labour.

Fr. Elijah said, “I think you’re missing the point if you’re trying to tell if there are differences between men and women by asking who is tougher.”

“Why?”

“It’s like asking what the differences are between apples and oranges, and then thinking you need to justify it with a measurement. So you may say that apples are bigger than oranges, until you realize that navel oranges are the size of a grapefruit and some varieties of apples don’t get that big. So maybe next you measure a sugar content, and you get really excited when you realize that maybe oranges have a measurably lower Ph than apples—a scientist’s way of measuring how sour they are—until someone reminds you that crabapples are so tart you wouldn’t want to eat them. And all this time you are looking for some precise scientific measurement that will let you scientifically be able to distinguish apples and oranges…

“Is it simply a measure of some difference in physical strength that makes you not like the idea of an Amish woman in battle? If you knew that the women were equally as strong as the men, identically strong, or tough or whatever, would that address…”

George hesitated. “But…”

Fr. Elijah sat silently.

“But,” George continued, “the idea of an Amish woman in battle… I know some girls who wanted to go into the military, and it didn’t bother me that much. And the Amish women are pacifists.”

“So if those women were gung-ho military enthusiasts, even if they weren’t soldiers, then you wouldn’t mind—”

“Ok, ok, that’s not it. But what is it about the Amish?”

“George, I think you’re barking up the wrong tree.”

“So what is the right tree? Where should I be barking?”

“When people notice a difference with another culture, at least in this culture they seek some ‘That’s cultural’ explanation about the other culture.”

“So there’s something about this culture? Ours?”

“George, let me ask you a question. How many times in the Arthurian legends did you see someone invite a man to be open about himself and have the courage to talk about his feelings?”

George was silent.

“We still have the expression, ‘wear the pants,’ even though it is no longer striking for a woman to wear trousers. It used to be as striking as it would be for a man to wear a skirt.”

“Um… you don’t approve of women wearing pants?”

“Let’s put that question on hold; it doesn’t mean the same thing. Abby wears trousers all the time. I wouldn’t want her to do otherwise.”

“But…”

“George, when have you seen me at the front of the church, leading worship but not wearing a skirt?”

“Um…”

“But I wouldn’t want you wearing a skirt. The question of wearing a skirt, or pants, or whatever, is like trying to make a rule based on size or tartness or whatever to separate apples from oranges.”

“It’s the wrong question, then?”

“It’s fundamentally the wrong question… and it misleads people into thinking that the right question must be as impossible to answer as the wrong question. Never mind asking who is allowed to wear pants and who is allowed to wear a skirt. We’re both men. I wear a skirt all the time. You shouldn’t. And, in either case, there is a way of dressing that is appropriate to men, and another to women, and that propriety runs much deeper than an absolute prohibition on who can wear what. And this is true even without getting into the differences between men’s and women’s jeans, which are subtle enough that you can easily miss them, but important.”

“Like what?”

“For starters, the cloth is hung on men’s jeans so that the fabric is like a grid, more specifically with some of the threads running up and down, and others running side to side. On women’s clothing, jeans included, the threads run diagonally.”

“And this is a deliberately subtle clue for the super-perceptive?”

“It changes how the cloth behaves. It changes the cloth’s physical properties. Makes women’s clothing run out faster, because it’s at just the right angle to wear out more quickly. But it also makes the cloth function as more form-fitting. On men’s jeans, the cloth just hangs; it’s just there as a covering. On women’s jeans, the cloth is there to cover, but it’s also there to highlight. This, and the cut, and a few other things, mean that even if men and women are both wearing jeans, there are differences, even if they’re subtle enough that you won’t notice them. Men’s jeans are clothing. Women’s jeans are more about adornment, even—or especially—if it’s something you’re not expected to notice.”

“So we do have differences?”

“We do have differences despite our best efforts to eradicate them. We want men to be sophisticated enough to cultivate their feminine sides, and women to be strong enough to step up to the plate.”

“Um, isn’t that loaded language?”

“Very. Or maybe not. But one of the features of Gnosticism is that there keeps popping up an idea that we should work towards androgyny. Including today.”

“Like what?”

“Um, you mean besides an educational system that is meant to be unisex and tells boys and girls to work together and be… um… ‘mature’ enough not to experience a tingle in the relationship? Or dressing unisex? Or not having too many activities that are men only or women only? Or not having boys and men together most of the time, and women and girls together? Or having people spend long periods of time in mixed company whether or not it is supposed to be romantic? Or an idea of dating that is courtly love without too many consciously acknowledged expectations about what is obviously the man’s role, and what is obviously the women’s role? Or—”

“Ok, ok, but I think there was more—”

“Yes, there is much more to the Amish, or the Arthurian legends, than what they hold about men and women. But there is also much more in what they hold about men and women—all the more when they are telling of Long Ago and Far Away, so that political correctness does not apply to them, so that men who go on great quests can be appreciated even by a woman who thinks men would be better off if they would just learn to talk more about their feelings and in general hold a woman’s aspirations of conversational intimacy. And the Amish are ‘technologically impaired,’ or whatever you want to call them, so they’re allowed to have real men and real women despite the fact that they are alive today. But the pull of men taught to be men, and women taught to be women, is powerful even if it’s politically incorrect, and—”

George interrupted. “Is this why I was trying to keep a straight face when you were asking me to imagine an Amish woman carrying a gun?”

Fr. Elijah thought. “For an Amish man to have to fight in battle would be bad enough. An Amish woman entering a battlefield would be something that would cut against the grain of their life as women. It’s not so superficial as the women being dainty and not strong enough to hold a gun.”

“The men seem stronger and tougher than the women, though.”

“Yes, but is it only a matter of being tougher? Is what you observed simply a matter of the women being tough but the men being tougher?”

George was silent.

Fr. Elijah looked at his watch and winced. “Always when I’m having a good conversation… George, I’m sorry, but I’ve got someone coming over any minute, and a bit of preparation. Sorry…”

George picked up his belongings, and Fr. Elijah blessed him on his way out. Then George stepped out, and Fr. Elijah momentarily opened the door. “Oh, and by the way, George, I have some more of that paper, if you want to write her a love note.” He closed the door.

George scurried away, hoping that Fr. Elijah hadn’t seen him blush.

It was not much later that April Fool’s Day came, falling on a Sunday. George did not feel brave, and paid a visit to Bedside Baptist. The days seemed to pass quickly with Abigail in the picture.

On Earth Day, George listened and was amazed at how many references to Creation he heard in the liturgy—not just the reference to “his mother, the earth,” but how plants and trees, rocks, stars, and seas, formed the warp and woof by which the Orthodox Church praised her Lord. The liturgy left him wishing Fr. Elijah would put off his preaching and say something to celebrate earth day…

Fr. Elijah stood up.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Today is Earth Day, and I thought that that would provide an excellent basis for my preaching today. The very opening chapters of Genesis are not about man alone but man and the whole Creation. There are some very interesting suggestions people have made that when Genesis says that we were told not only to “be fruitful and multiply,” but “fill the earth and subdue it,” the word translated “subdue” is very gentle, almost an embrace, as a mother nurtures a child. Which is a very lovely image, but is absolute hogwash.

The word translated “subdue” is the word Christ uses for exactly what Christians must not do by “lording their authority” over other Christians as the heathen do. The book of Genesis tells of this beautiful Creation and then has God charge us with a charge that could much better be translated, “trample it under foot.” And what better day than Earth Day than to talk about why we should trample the earth under foot, told to us in a text that is resplendent with natural beauty?

Many people today call the earth ‘Gaia’, and that is well and good. Today one calls a man ‘Mr.’ and a woman ‘Miss’ or ‘Ms.’ or ‘Mrs.’ if there is no other honorific, and as much as adults all bear that title, in Latin every woman bears then name of ‘Gaia’ and every man bears the name of ‘Gaius.’ And if we are speaking of the earth, it is well and proper to call her Gaia; only someone who understands neither men nor women would think of her as sexless!

If you are dealing with a horse, for instance, it helps to keep in mind that they are prey animals with a lot of fear. Never mind that they’re much bigger than you; they’re afraid of you, as you would be afraid of a rat, and need to be treated like a small child. But you can only deal with a horse gently after it is broken and after you have made it clear that it is you holding the reins and not the horse. You need to be able to treat a horse like a little child if you are to handle them… but if you spoil it, and fail to establish your authority, you have a terrified small child that is stronger than an Olympic athlete. You do need to be gentle with a horse, but it is a gentleness that holds the reins, with you in charge.

There are a number of fundamental difficulties we face about being in harmony with nature, and one of the chief ones is that we are trying to be in harmony with nature the wrong way. We are trying to take our cue from our mother the earth, perhaps instead of taking our cue from technology. And it is excellent to treat Gaia gently, and perhaps technology is in fact quite a terrible place to take our cue from, and something else we absolutely need to trample under foot, but there is something mistaken about the rider taking his cue from the horse. In Genesis we are called to rule material Creation as its head: we are to give it its cue, rather than following. Perhaps you have seen the Far Side cartoon that says, “When imprinting studies go awry” and shows a scientist last in line with ducklings follow a mother duck… which is very funny, but not a recipe for a life well lived. We are made from the same clay as horse and herb, but unless we are deeply sunk into the even worse cues we will take from technology when we fail to rule it, we do not serve our best interests—or the earth’s—when we ask her to dance and expect her to be our lead.

But enough of what is politically incorrect in the West, where we say that men should not lead and mean, in both senses, that humans should not lead the rest of Creation and that males should not lead females. I could belabor why both of those are wrong, but I would like to dig deeper, deeper even than saying that lordship applies to every one of us even if we are all “a man under authority,” including me.

Patristic exegesis of the rule over Creation is first and foremost of a rule over our passions and over ourselves. We are not fit to lead others or Creation if we have not even learned to lead ourselves; “better is a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city.” If you are following a Western model, then you may be thinking of a big enterprise for us to start ruling Creation which is really beside the point. If you save yourself through ascetical mastery, ten thousand will be saved around you. Never mind that this is mystical; it is a matter of “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you.” You become a leader, and a man, not by ruling over others, but by ruling over yourself.

We are in Great Lent now, the central season of the entire Orthodox year, not because it is about ruling others or about ruling Creation—it isn’t—but because it is about ruling ourselves. We are not to seek a larger kingdom to rule outside ourselves; we are to turn our attention to the kingdom within, and rule it, and God will add a larger kingdom outside if we are ready. The first, foremost, and last of places for us to exercise lordship is in ourselves, and our rule over the Creation is but an image of our rule over ourselves, impressive as the outer dominion may be.

We bear the royal bloodline of Lord Adam and Lady Eve, and we are to be transformed into the image of Christ. Let us seek first the Kingdom of God, with all that that means for our rule over ourselves.

In the Name of the Lord and Father, and of the Son who is Lord, and of the Heavenly King, who is the Holy Ghost, Amen.

After his Sunday dinner, George thought it would be a good time to wander in the wood.

In the forest, he found himself by a babbling brook, with the sound of a waterfall not far off. George brushed off a fallen mossy log and sat down to catch his breath.

George began listening to the birdsong, and it almost seemed he could tell a pattern. Then two warm hands covered his eyes.

George tried to look up, remembered his eyes were covered, and brought his own hands up to his face, briefly touching a small, soft pair of hands. Then he said, “It’s definitely a man…”

Then George turned. Abigail was sticking out her tongue.

Abigail’s dress was a rich, deep, deep red, the color of humble earth seen through a ruby. A pair of bare white feet peeked out from beneath a long flowing skirt, a wide, golden straw hat sat atop her locks, and dark, intricate knotwork lay across her heart.

George looked down at his own feet and saw his own worn combat boots, before looking at Abigail’s face. She smiled and said, “Boo!”

George said, “What are you doing here?”

“What are you doing here?”

“Taking a walk, as I do from time to time.”

“Must be pretty rare for you, if this is the first time I’ve seen you.”

“You’re in the woods more often than I am?”

A squirrel darted out, climbed across Abigail’s foot, and scurried away.

George asked, “It wasn’t afraid of you?”

“Most of them aren’t, at least not that much of the time.”

George looked at her, and she said, “It’s not such a big deal, really. Read any good books lately?”

“No, and—ooh, I told Fr. Elijah I’d read C.S. Lewis, something or other about ‘glory.’ I need to get back to him.”

“Maybe it’s a box you’re not meant to open, at least not yet… if I know Grandpa, he’s probably forgotten about it completely.”

“But I should—”

“You should leave it a closed box, if anything. How are you?”

George looked at the forest—how like a garden it looked—and then Abigail. He was at something of a loss for words. He looked down at her alabaster feet, and then her face. “Having a good day.”

She smiled, and a sparrow flew between them. “There’s a hawk in here somewhere, only it’s hard to find. You can spend a lot of time exploring this forest. I’m having a good day, too.”

George sat for a while, trying to think of something to say, and Abigail said, “You’re being pretty quiet now.”

George said, “I’ve been looking at majoring in math.”

Abigail said, “Um…”

“You know how to tell if a mathematician is an extravert?”

“Nope.”

George looked down and said, “He looks at your feet when they’re talking to you.”

Abigail giggled. “Have you heard my Grandpappy’s theory on how PMS got its name?”

George said, “Um…”

She giggled again. “Something about ‘Mad Cow Disease’ being taken.”

George stiffened, and looked for something to say.

Abigail said, “Stop it, George. Just stop it. Don’t you get it? Don’t you stand and listen or sing the hymn where the the Mother of God is honored as the Ewe that bore the Lamb of God and the Heifer that bore the Unblemished Calf?”

George’s mind raced. “I suppose that if, in the same breath, Christ is called—”

Abigail interrupted. “Next time you’re in Church, listen, really listen, as the Mother of God is honored, then listen as Christ our God is worshiped. There’s a difference. Don’t try to analyze it or even put your finger on it. Just listen, and… George, do you understand women? At all?”

George looked for something to say, but found nothing.

A dark cloud blew across the sky, and cold rain began to fall more heavily until it poured.

George said, “May I lend you my jacket?”

Abigail said, “I’m fine.”

The rain grew colder, and began to pelt. George and Abigail both rose and began scurrying towards campus. George took off his jacket and started to place it around Abigail’s shoulders.

Abigail said, “I don’t—”

George looked down and said, “I’m wearing boots and you have bare feet,” and wrapped his jacket around her shoulders. Then a gust of wind tore at Abigail’s hat, but George caught it.

Then they ran back, with George shivering under his threadbare T-shirt. When they got back, he went to his dorm and she to hers. George called Abigail and confirmed she was OK, took three long, hot showers, and spent the rest of the evening sinking into a lounge chair in his bathrobe, sipping cocoa, and thinking.

Tuesday evening, George found time to visit Fr. Elijah. He wanted to talk about another subject. Definitely another subject.

“Fr. Elijah, are you busy?”

“I hope not… come in.”

“After all this, I still want the Holy Grail.”

“Excellent thing, my son… the chief point of life is to search for the Holy Grail.”

“But will I find it? I mean… I’m not sure what I mean.”

“May I show you something old?”

“As far as material age goes, it is much older than the Holy Grail.”

The old man opened a desk drawer, and fished out a small box.

“I thought this might interest you,” he said, and took something out of the box, and placed it in George’s hand.

George looked the item over. It looked like a piece of bark, not much larger than a pebble, and yet it seemed heavy for a piece of bark. “Is this stone or wood? I can’t tell which it is.”

“Is it stone or wood? In fact, it is petrified wood… from the Oak of Mambre.”

“Oak of Mambre? Should I have heard of it before?”

“You probably have, and if you can’t remember it, there is something you’re missing.”

“What is the Oak of Mambre?”

“I’ll tell you in a bit. When you grasp the Oak of Mambre, you hold the Holy Grail.”

“How?”

“The Oak of Mambre is older than any of the civilizations you know; for that matter, it might be older than the practice of writing. Do you know about Abraham?”

“The one Paul calls the father of all who believe?”

“Yes, that Abraham. The Bible tells how Abraham met three men who came to him, and showed the most lavish hospitality, giving them the costliest meal he could have given. And it was then that the men promised the impossible. It is clear enough later that these men were in fact angels, were in fact God.

“From the West, you may not know that even if we Orthodox are big on icons, it’s fingernails to a chalkboard when Orthodox see the Father portrayed as the proverbial old man with a beard. Christ may be portrayed because of his incarnation; the same is not true of the invisible Father, who is not and never will be incarnate. Icons of the Father have been fundamentally rejected, but there was one exception. From ancient times there has been an icon of Abraham’s hospitality to the three men, or three angels, and centuries ago one iconographer showed something deeper: it is the same three men or angels, but instead of a table with a lamb as in the old version of the icon, there is an icon with a chalice atop an altar. In both the old and the new form of the icon, the Oak of Mambre is in the back, and it is this same oak for which I have shown you a fragment.”

“Is it holy because it is old?”

“Being old does not make a thing holier. The pebbles in your yard are of stone ages older than the oldest relic. Though they are, admittedly, part of the earth which received Christ’s blood on the cross, and which Bulgakov rightly calls the Holy Grail.

“A thing is kept and preserved because it is holy, and if people will try to keep a holy thing for a long time, it will probably be old to most of the people who see it. Same reason most of the people who have seen the Liberty Bell saw it when it was old because people have been keeping it for a long time, much longer than the time when it was new, so most of the people who have seen, or will see, the Liberty Bell, see it as an old treasure. But back to holy things: a holy thing is, if anything, timeless: when there arose a great evil in Russia and Marx’s doctrine helped people try to make paradise and caused a deep, deep river of blood to flow, the communists in the Orthodox heartland of Russia made martyrs, and in that torrential river of blood made more Orthodox martyrs than the rest of history put together. God will preserve saints’ relics from that, and it may be that there are more relics from the past century than all centuries before. And they are not the less holy because they are new. But let us return to the Oak of Mambre and why, if you grasp it, you hold the Holy Grail.”

“Ok. Why is that?”

“The Church has decided that the only legitimate way to portray an icon of the Trinity is in the hospitality of Abraham. And the Icon of the Holy Trinity is the deepest icon of the Holy Grail—deeper even than an icon that I can show you that shows the Mother of God as a chalice holding her Son. Where is the Holy Grail in this icon?”

“Is it that little thing in the center?”

“In part. Where else is it?”

George looked long and hard, seemed to almost catch something, before it vanished from his face.

“There are different interpretations,” Fr. Elijah said, “and the icon conceals things; even the angel is a protecting veil to a reality that cannot be seen. But in the layers of this icon, the deepest glimpse sees the Father on the left, the Spirit on the right, and the Son in blood red clothes in the center, encased as in a chalice, showing the reality in Heaven for which even the Holy Grail is merely a shadow.”

George turned the stone over in his hand with awe, closed his eyes, and then looked at the relic he held in his hand. “So I am holding the Holy Grail.”

Fr. Elijah said, “Yes, if you look on it with enlightened eyes. Where else do you meet the Holy Grail?”

“In every person I meet?”

“‘Tis hard to answer better than that. When you become Orthodox, you will receive the Eucharist and kiss the chalice, and, perhaps, find that the Holy Grail is achieved not by an unearthly isolated hero, but by a community in common things.”

“But why do people kiss the Holy Grail? I mean the chalice?”

“If you call it the Holy Grail, even if your tongue slips, you may be understanding it. The Western view is that there is one original chalice and the others are separate sorts of things; in Orthodoxy, what is the same between the Holy Grail and ‘another’ chalice runs infinitely deeper than what separates them; the ‘real’ thing is that they are the same.”

“But why the kiss?”

“Let me ask you a question. Do you think a kiss has more to do with worship, or with mental calculations?”

“Does it have to do with either?”

“You haven’t read the Bible in Greek.”

“What does the Greek Bible have to do with it?”

“Quite a lot, but it will take me a bit to explain why. But there is a deep tie.

“The main word for reverence or worship, in the Greek Bible, literally means to kiss. Part of what you’ll keep coming to again and again is that the West understands the mind as the thing that calculates, and the East understands the mind as what knows, and is enlightened, because it tastes and even more deeply because it worships. I don’t know how to put this clearly, in terms that will make sense to someone who does not know the spiritual realities involved. There is a false kiss—I dare say, the kiss of Judas or a kiss that is hollow like the kiss of Judas—that is nothing more than a calculated act. But there is also a kiss that has something to do with worship, and it is no error that Orthodoxy has things ‘with love and kisses.’ We embrace icons, crosses, holy books, each other with reverence that includes a kiss. And rightly done, such kisses are connected to worship.”

“I still don’t understand why.”

“Let me make a momentary detour; I’ll get back in a moment. Old texts can be at once something we genuinely experience a deep connection to, and something treacherously unfaithful to our assumptions. What would you say, for instance, that the medieval Scholastics are talking about when they use the word that is usually translated, ‘intellect’?”

“I try to keep my mind free of preconceptions, especially when dealing with something unfamiliar.”

“So you’d be open to anything they’d say about the intellect’s ability to draw logical conclusions from one thing to another?”

“They can let the intellect draw conclusions however they want to.”

“But here’s the thing. They don’t. It is a fundamental error to read ‘intellect’ as ‘the thing that reasons by logical deduction. Saying that the ‘intellect’ is what makes deductions by reasoning from one thing by another is like saying that an object’s height is what you measure with a bathroom scale, or that its weight is measurable with a ruler. It’s a fundamental error; the intellect is precisely what does not reason from premises to conclusions.”

“Then what is the intellect?”

“I usually don’t use the term ‘intellect’ for it; the closest English equivalent I can think of is ‘spiritual eye’. But even that misses what exactly this spiritual eye connects with. And this spiritual eye was known to the Greek Fathers no less than the Latin scholastics; if anything, the Greek Fathers were more attuned to it. Scholastic theology is an exercise, to a large degree, of that which reasons; the theology of the Fathers comes from another place. The spiritual eye is that which connects with spiritual realities, that which worships above all—and if you want a good, short definition for what ‘intellect’ means besides ‘what IQ is supposed to measure,’ use the definition ‘where one meets God.’ If reasoning deduces what you may not see yet, the spiritual eye sees, and knows by what it can see, not by what it can pull from other things it already has. This reasoning from one thing shines like the sun in Western Scholasticism.”

“And that’s something you don’t have in Orthodoxy?”

“We do have it. But reasoning shines like the moon: it reflects the light of the sun in each of us, the sun of our mind’s spiritual eye. It plays more of a supporting role.”

“And what does all of this have to do with your ritual kiss?”

“There was an awful video I heard was shown in one of your college’s psychology classes; I don’t know if you’ve seen it. It was talking about one psychological theory, and discussed how reward and such could be used to reduce autistic behaviors. And it showed a scientist, or psychologist, or something, who was patiently training a little girl to not do whatever he was trying to stop her from doing, and the girl lit up when he gave her a kiss. And then, along with a fake-sounding Mommy-ese talking in a high-pitched voice which Iassure you was not spontaneous, he started to use almost forced kisses to, well…”

George cut in. “Manipulate her?”

“Yes, you found the word I was looking for. The one time I heard Abigail talking about that video, she said there was a bit of bristling going though the class; the students were uncomfortable with something about that video and its one more mere technique, a meretool, for changing a little girl’s behavior.”

“Is the spiritual eye, or whatever, spontaneous? Is it about spontaneity?”

“I’ll have to think about that… I’m not sure I’ve seriously thought about whether the spiritual eye is spontaneous. But spontaneity is not the issue here. The point has to do with what place a kiss should come from if it is not to be hollow. Have you noticed that none of the icons I’ve showed you have a signature?”

“Because the iconographers are not supposed to be what we think of in the West as artists, with their own signature style and their big egos?”

“A little bit. Iconography is art, and artistry and talent do mean anything: the iconographer is not a cog in a machine—and may be doing something much bigger than trying to use art supplies for self-expression. There is something self-effacing about iconography—something very self-effacing—but you find that when you bow down and efface yourself, it is you doing something much bigger than otherwise. Writing icons is a form of prayer, a spiritual exercise, and it is said—just like we speak of ‘writing’ icons rather than ‘painting’ them—that it is inadequate for an iconographer to sign the icon, because the icon is written, not merely by the iconographer’s hand, but by his his spiritual eye. It is ever much more than a merely material process, and when you become Orthodox you may sense icons that have spiritual depth and icons that let you see no further than the wood, and if you receive this gift, you will be responding to the spiritual process out of which the icon arose.”

“I have sensed something… the icons still look like awkward pictures to me, but I’m starting to find something more.”

“That is good. And your mouth—with which you breathe in your spirit, and show the reason of speech, and will receive the Eucharist—is not that by which you may give a kiss; it is that through which you may give the kiss that comes from and to some extent is the embrace of your spiritual eye. That’s when a kiss is furthest from the hollow kiss that Judas gave. The knowledge of the spiritual eye is something I have discussed as sight, but in the ancient world all people recognized something touch-y about all the five senses, not just one. And this knowledge and drinking are exemplars of each other, draughts from the same fountain, and it is not an accident that ‘know’ has a certain sense in the Bible between, for instance, Adam and Eve: the spiritual eye knows by drinking in, and it is a fundamental error to think that the holy kiss has nothing to do with knowledge.”

“This sounds like a fairy tale.”

“Maybe you know your fairy tales, and know that there is something magic about a kiss. As one scholar put it, examples of the kiss as a means of making and breaking enchantments have been found in the folklore of almost every culture in the Western world. Orthodoxy has something more than this enchantment. There is a spiritual mingling, and even the Eucharist is understood as a kiss, and a kiss that embraces others: in the Eucharist, the body of Christ is offered up, including a token of bread for every parishioner—before being distributed. Have you not noticed that the best bishops and the most devout of the Orthodox, give the best kisses? But let me step back a bit.

“The difference in understanding symbol is one of the biggest differences between East and West. In the West, at least in its modern forms, a symbol is a detached and somewhat arbitrary representation. In the East a symbol is connected, cut from the same cloth as it were. The difference between Orthodoxy and various Protestant schools is not whether the Eucharist is a symbol, but what that means—that the Eucharist is an arbitrarily detached token, connected only in the viewer’s mind, or whether it is connected and in fact the same on a real level.

“We are made in the image of God, which means that how you treat others is inseparable from how you treat God: you treat God with respect, love, or contempt as you meet him in the person of others. And the things that we reverently kiss in Orthodoxy are all connected with God. We show our reverence to God in how we treat them. And if a person is being transformed according to the likeness of Christ, then it is fitting to reverently kiss that person and show respect for the Lord.

“To give the holy kiss rightly is a microcosm of faith and community. You cannot do it alone, nor can you do it apart from worship. If you look at the things that fit together in a fitting kiss, you have love, God, your neighbor… there are a great many actions that are listed in the Bible, and many of them are holy actions, but only one is called holy: the holy kiss. If you grasp the Holy Grail in your heart, and you grasp this kiss in its full sense, you will know that the sacred kiss in which our souls are mingled is the Sign of the Grail. It is the eighth sacrament.”

George was silent for a long time. “I don’t think I know enough to be Orthodox.”

Fr. Elijah said, “Join the club! I know I don’t know enough.”

“But you’re a priest!”

“And you cannot become Orthodox without entering the royal priesthood. You aren’t ready to be Orthodox just because you know a certain amount; you’re ready when you’re ready for the responsibility, like getting married, or getting a job, or any other of a number of things. You are ready when you are ready to take the responsibility to return the Creation as an offering to God and shoulder a priestly office. And, in your case, I might add, when you enter the great City and Castle called the Church, and are ready for the Sign of the Grail.”

“All I know now is my own unworthiness.”

“Good. You’re growing! Ponder your unworthiness and give it to God. Do you want to take Brocéliande back now?”

George gladly took the book back. He returned to his room, and some time later, George began reading:

The hermit spoke. “Listen as I tell the history of Saint George.

“The King wept sore. ‘The land is weeping, the land itself weeps. The dragon hath devoured every damsel of the land, every last one, and now it seeketh mine own. I bewail the death of my joy and my daughter.’

“Then Saint George said, ‘By my faith I will protect her and destroy this fiend,’ and Saint George prayed and gat him his destrier and armed him and fewtered his spear and rode out and faced the sea.

“And the dragon arose from the sea and his deeps. And venom were in the wyrm his heart, and the grievous stench of death stank all round.

“Then the serpent charged upon Saint George the ever victorious knight, and the dragon breathed fire which brake and were quenched upon Saint George his shield, a grand cross gules upon a field or.

“Then Saint George made him the Sign of the Cross.

“Then Saint George smote the dragon, the great paladin his great spear dove into the dragon his mouth and dolve far beyond that insatiate devouring maw, until the dragon his head were riven asunder from the dragon his body trampled by Saint George his horse. And Saint George hurled the wyrm his head into the dark thrice cursed valley far outside of the castle.

“That day the King and the whole castle made such merriment as had never been since, for we do not know merriment today. There were jugglers and jesters and a table full filled, and before evensong the King gave George the hand of the King his daughter. That were the gayest of all.”

The knight asked the hermit, “Why speakest thou me of this history?”

The hermit spake unto him and answered, “Sir knight, thou hast given me not thine name. What be it?”

“Thou entreatest of me my name? Thou askest what none hath asked of me aforetimes. My name is called Sir Perceval. And now I ask of thee of what I have asked not aforetimes. Had Saint George heard tell of whom doth the Grail serve?”

George slowly closed the book, and put it on a shelf. He momentarily wondered why he treated Brocéliande as something to read alone. There was something that seemed just out of his reach.

And then George realized something deep, deep inside himself.

Then it was Holy Week.

Or at least George wanted it to be holy week for him, too.

George found himself standing in Church, in the holiest of surroundings, and struggling to pray. Memories arose; painful memories of stinging things done by those he loved. Voluptuous images sometimes followed. He struggled to pray, but his mind remained locked in earthly struggles. His body ached in the long services: there were icons, chanting, and incense without, and struggles within. He wanted to rest in worship, and he couldn’t.

In his mind, he remembered a moment when a beggar had come to him, and wouldn’t stop pleading no matter how much he annoyed George. The image filled his mind, and George was startled when he turned and saw the beggar’s face on the wall. Why was that?

George was looking at an icon of Christ.

He had fallen short, and not only in seeing that beggar as nothing but an annoyance. Did George really have no common bond with that beggar?

For that matter, did George have no common bond with the civilization that he disdained, the civilization that included everybody he knew from the beggar to his parents, the civilization that gave him everything from his clothing to his language? Was it there for no other purpose than for him to criticize and feel superior to?

Fr. Elijah, moving amongst the congregation, swung the censer before George in veneration.

George barely noticed that some of these thoughts were giving way, and he was aware, with almost a painful sharpness, of something else.

George mulled over Fr Elijah’s words about hollow kisses, and then started to see how hollow George was.

Unworthy thought he felt, George stood with growing awe and wonder, waiting until Great and Holy Thursday, the one day in holy week where wine was allowed. “Ordinary” wine was allowed, held in honor and in remembrance of the Last Supper, when wine became the blood of Christ and the eucharistic chalice was forever given to men. This day, if anything, was to George the feast of the Holy Grail.

And so he stood entranced, as if he were entering from afar. He watched the Last Supper as here and now, as Fr. Elijah stood “in the flame” before the altar, and then listened as he read the Gospel according to St. John the Evangelist, of the night when Christ loved his disciples to the last, and prayed out from the glory he shared with the Father before the worlds had begun.

And Fr. Elijah read and read, reading until George’s body ached from standing.

Then someone walked over to twelve unlit candles, and lit one. The first.

George’s heart sank. There were eleven candles still to go.

The readings continued, and became shorter, until the twelve candles were lit. George began to feel anger at the unending readings—until he heard Christ’s words from the garden of Gethsemane: “What, could you not watch with me one hour?” Who were those words spoken to?

And then, when the readings had run their course, the liturgy followed—at once unlike an intimate gathering in an upper room in external appearance, but yet like the place that feels like home though nothing on the outside resembles the home. George thought for a moment about a historical reconstruction of the Last Supper pursued through academic rigor in archaeology… and then realized he needed no such thing. He was watching the Last Supper all around him, and in the words of Fr. Elijah’s remark, “You didn’t even need a time machine.”

Or was this liturgy a spiritual time machine? Certainly time flowed in the most interesting ways, now quickly, now slowly, swirling about in eddies… there was something George could not put his finger on, but he understood for a moment what could make a person imagine a way to turn back time.

And so George found himself almost surprised when Fr. Elijah said, “He gave it to his holy disciples and apostles, saying, ‘Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you, for the forgiveness of sins.'”

Then the faithful sealed this with their, “Amen.”

Then Fr. Elijah said, “Likewise, he took the cup of the fruit of the vine, and having mingled it, offering thanks, blessing, and sanctifying it, he gave it to his holy disciples and apostles, saying, ‘Drink of this, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.'”

The disciples around him sealed this, with their, “Amen.”

George looked in wonder at the chalice that was raised. He thought, “This is it. This is the Holy Grail, forever given, that belongs to Christ’s disciples.”

As the liturgy continued, and Fr. Elijah proclaimed the Holy Gifts, the people continued to seal the Gifts with their “Amen,” and George watched as they received from the chalice, and kissed the chalice in reverence, and (though George paid this little attention) Fr. Elijah’s hand.

George found himself basking in the glow of that long moment for as the liturgy continued and Fr. Elijah anointed those around him that they may be healed in soul and body.

As he walked home, he thought, “I have seen the Holy Grail. It has been under my nose. Very soon I will be one of those who share it, one of those the Holy Grail belongs to.”

When George got home, he slept as peacefully as he slept in ages.

Then George entered the Church on Great and Holy Friday.

The whole service moved slowly, felt like something great but alien that slipped through George’s fingers no matter what he did to grasp it. Around him were some who were silent, some who were singing, and some who were weeping. A great cross was brought out, and a great icon of Christ hung on it with nails.

And then something clicked in George’s heart.

Some years before, he had been at a martial arts demonstration and saw a fifth degree black belt standing like a picturesque statue, looking quaint and exotic, holding a beautiful pair of fans. And then, for an instant, there was a flurry of motion as he was attacked by six other black belts with swords. And then, an instant later, George saw a fifth degree black belt standing like a picturesque statue, looking quaint and exotic, holding a beautiful pair of fans, and all around him were six other black belts with swords, on the ground, crying.

That had for long been the greatest display of power George had seen.

Now something was at the back of his mind.

Here was a new image of strength.

Were they the same?

Were they different?

Was the true nature of strength, strength in weakness?

The fifth degree black belt showed strength behind apparent weakness—or at least what looked like weakness to an outsider like George; he had no idea what it would look like to someone who was not a barbarian like him. To him, the martial arts demonstration seemed to show strength, if a show was needed, and a strength great and powerful enough to vastly understate itself. And the One before him on the cross showed more of the same… or was that really true?

Was it?

Something about that did not sit well.

Inside George’s heart flashed an icon that had been on his mind—of a Man, his head bent, a purple robe about his wounded body. The robe was royal purple to mock the “pretender,” his hands were bound, and a crown of thorns rested atop his bent head.

Atop the icon was an inscription in Greek and in English:

Ο ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΤΗΣ ΔΟΞΗΣ

THE KING OF GLORY

George raised his eyes to the crucified God.

This was another kind of strength.

George began to weep.

This was the strength that prayed, if there was any way, that the cup might pass from him.

This was the strength that prayed, “Thy will be done.”

This was the strength that drank the cup to the dregs, and shattered it forever.

This was

THE KING OF GLORY
THE KING OF KINGS
THE LORD OF LORDS
THE GOD OF GODS
THE LION OF JUDAH
THE FIRSTBORN OF THE DEAD
THE RESURRECTION AND ETERNAL LIFE
THE NEW MAN AND THE LAST ADAM
THE UNCREATED GOD
THE DIVINE, ORDERING WISDOM
THROUGH WHOM ALL THINGS WERE MADE
BY WHOM ALL THINGS WERE MADE
IN WHOM ALL THINGS CONSIST
THE LORD OF THE CHURCH AND ALL CREATION
THE BRIDEGROOM OF THE CHURCH AND ALL CREATION

Had George ever known what it was to worship?

George stood in awe of the one who was, in truth, the Holy Grail…

or rather, the one for whom the Holy Grail was but a shadow.

And who was George next to such holiness and power?

Unclean and defiled.

When George had thought about going to his first confession, it had looked to him like the least attractive part of the picture of becoming Orthodox. But now, even if he knew even more dread, he wanted, not so much to be unburdened for himself, but to turn himself in and render what was due.

He didn’t just think he needed to. He simply knew that it was something that he owed with from the core of his being.

What evil had he not practiced?

He prayed aloud, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and then in spirit and body fell prostrate before his God and Lord.

George returned home, mindful of his sin, but ever so much more mindful of the greatness of the Lord and Savior.

He spent Saturday in the terrifying struggle to repent of his sin, to face his sin and write the spiritual blank check that he feared in the unconditional surrender of rejecting sin.

When he confessed his sin, Fr. Elijah blessed him, said, “I’m sorry I can’t give you the sacramental absolution yet—that will follow your chrismation,” and then said, “Welcome home, son. Keep repenting.”

And then the vigil was upon them.

It began with George standing in the center of the action as he stood before the congregation and, answering Fr. Elijah, renounced the Devil and all his works, rejecting sin, schism, and heresy, and vowed himself to Christ as a member of the Orthodox Church.

Then Fr. Elijah anointed George with sacred chrism, chrismating him with the fragrant oil of anointing that sealed George as a little Christ, as spiritual prophet, priest, and king, as one of the faithful in the Orthodox Church. This oil of spiritual blessing that worked in him more deeply even as it was wiped away from his skin—the emblem of the Spirit that penetrated like a sword. Fr. Elijah absolved George of his sins, and then the newly illumined servant of God George, stood before the congregation.

Then George faded into the background while the vigil unfolded, and he could never remember all of it—only that it seemed like a treasurehouse from which more and more wondrous treasure was brought forth. George remembered later the incense, the chant of “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,” the call of “Christ is risen!” and its answer, “He is risen indeed!”, repeated triumphantly, in English, in Slavonic, in Arabic, in Spanish… and most of all George remembered the faces around them. There was something more deeply radiant and beautiful than that of someone who had won millions of dollars. The vigil lasted for hours, but though George ached, he barely minded—he almost wished it would last for hours more.

When it was time for the homily, Fr. Elijah stood up, his face radiant, and read the age-old homily of St. John Chrysostom, read at all kinds of Orthodox parishes on Pascha for ages:

If any man be devout and loveth God,
Let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast!
If any man be a wise servant,
Let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord.

If any have labored long in fasting,
Let him now receive his recompense.
If any have wrought from the first hour,
Let him today receive his just reward.
If any have come at the third hour,
Let him with thankfulness keep the feast.
If any have arrived at the sixth hour,
Let him have no misgivings;
Because he shall in nowise be deprived therefore.
If any have delayed until the ninth hour,
Let him draw near, fearing nothing.
And if any have tarried even until the eleventh hour,
Let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness.

For the Lord, who is jealous of his honor,
Will accept the last even as the first.
He giveth rest unto him who cometh at the eleventh hour,
Even as unto him who hath wrought from the first hour.
And He showeth mercy upon the last,
And careth for the first;
And to the one He giveth,
And upon the other He bestoweth gifts.
And He both accepteth the deeds,
And welcometh the intention,
And honoureth the acts and praises the offering.

Wherefore, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord;
Receive your reward,
Both the first, and likewise the second.
You rich and poor together, hold high festival!
You sober and you heedless, honor the day!
Rejoice today, both you who have fasted
And you who have disregarded the fast.
The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously.
The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy ye all the feast of faith:
Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.

Let no one bewail his poverty,
For the universal Kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one weep for his iniquities,
For pardon has shown forth from the grave.
Let no one fear death,
For the Saviour’s death has set us free.
He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it.

By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive.
He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry:
Hell, said he, was embittered
When it encountered Thee in the lower regions.

It was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was overthrown.
It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.
It took a body, and met God face to face.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead,
Is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be glory and dominion
Unto ages of ages.

Amen.

And then the prayers moved very quickly—joyously—radiantly—and the Eucharist was served, George being called up first among the faithful to receive it.

Then the newly illumined servant George received Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.

And George kissed Fr. Elijah’s hand and the chalice,

forgetting it was the Holy Grail.

And when the liturgy finished, Fr. Elijah announced to the congregation, “You may kiss the convert.”

Then the feast began,

a faint fragrance of frankincense flowed,

and a fragrant fragrance of flowers flowed.

Fr. Elijah spoke a blessing,

over a table piled high with finest meats

and puddings

and every good thing,

and the fruit of the vine poured out.

Every door and every window was opened,

and the wind blew where it willed,

and the wind blew where it pleased,

and George settled in to his home,

grateful to God.

Then someone told a Russian folktale,

and someone began singing,

and people began dancing,

and a little boy chased a little girl,

clutching a flower.

And men and women,

children,

young and old,

saluted George with a kiss,

every last one

of his brethren.

And the crystalline light

of a sapphire sky

blew through the window,

and angels danced,

and saints below cracked red Pascha eggs,

red in the footsteps of Mary Magdalene,

a holy grail,

and George laughed,

and wanted to weep,

for joy.

Then George and Abigail talked long.

George could never remember now long the celebration seemed to last. It seemed that he had found a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed, filled with every kind of wonder, at once Heaven and home, at once chalice and vine, maiden and mother, ancient and alive. It was the family George had forever wanted to enter.

Then George kissed Abigail—a long, full kiss—and absolutely nothing about it was hollow.

When he stepped back, Fr. Elijah tapped him on the shoulder. “By the way, George… I know this is down the road, but let me know when you two get engaged. I’d be happy to do your wedding.”

George looked at Abigail, paused, and said, “Abigail, do you see how the candlelight glistens off your Grandpappy’s bald spot? Isn’t it romantic?”

Fr. Elijah and Abigail turned to each other and said, “It’s about time!”

Then Fr. Elijah said, “Welcome to the Castle of the Saints, George. Welcome home.”

What the Present Debate Won’t Tell You about Headship

Cover for Yonder

Today I’m going to talk about head and body (headship). And I say “headship” with hesitation, because in today’s world asserting “headship” means, “defending traditional gender roles against feminism.” And that maybe important, but I want to talk about something larger, something that will be missed if “headship” means nothing more than “one position in the feminist controversy.”

One speaker didn’t like people entering Church and saying, “It’s so good to enter the Lord’s presence.” He said, “Where were you all week? How did you escape the Lord’s presence?” And whatever Church is, it is absolutely not entering the one place where God is present. At least, it’s not stepping out of some imaginary place where God simply can’t be found.

But if we are always in the Lord’s presence, that doesn’t mean that Church isn’t special. It is special, and it is the head of living in God’s presence for all of our lives. Our time in Church is an example of headship. Worshipping God in Church is the head of a life of worship, and it is the head of a body.

There is something special about our time in Church. But the way we live our lives, our “body” of time spent, manifests that glory in a different way. Christ didn’t say that people will know we are his disciples by our “official” worship, however much God’s blessing may rest on it. Christ said instead that all people will know we are his disciples by this, that we love one another. That isn’t primarily in Church. That’s in our day to day lives. If our time in Church crystallizes a life of worship, our love for one another is to manifest it. And that is the place of the body.

The relationship between head and body is the relationship between corporate worship and our lives as a whole. The body manifests the glory of the head. In my head I can decide to walk to a friend’s house. But the head needs the body and the body needs the head, and I can only go to a friend’s house if my head’s decision to visit a friend’s house is lived out in my body. “The head cannot say to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.'”

The Father is the head of the Son. “No man can see God and live.” God the Father is utterly beyond us; he transcends anything we could know; he is pure glory. If we were to have direct contact with him, we would be destroyed. And yet the Son is equal to the Father; the Son is just as far beyond this Creation, but there is a difference. The Son is the bridge between God and man, and God and his Creation. God the Father created the world through the Son, and the Son is just as glorious as the Father, but the Son can touch us without destroying us. The Father displays himself through the Son. The Father’s love came to earth through the Son. The Father’s wish that we may be made divine is possible precisely because the Son became man. And finally we can know the Father through the Son. If you have seen the Son, you have seen the Father.

We read in the New Testament that Christ is the head of man, that Christ is the head of all authority, that Christ is the head of the Church, and that Christ is the head of the whole Creation. If we think, with people today, that to have any authority over us, any head, is degrading, then we have to resent a lot more than a husband’s headship to his wife. But that’s not the only option. When Christ is the head of the cosmos, there is more than authority going on, even if we have a negative view of authority. Our Orthodox understanding that the Son of God became a man that men might become the sons of God, that the divine became human that the human might become divine, expresses what the headship of Christ means. Christ is the head, and that means that the Church is drawn up in his divinity. If we are the body of Christ the head, that doesn’t mean we’re just under his authority. It means that we are a part of him and share in his divinity. The teaching that we share in his divinity is very tightly connected to the teaching of “recapitulation”, or “re-heading,” where Christ being the head of the Church, and our sharing in Christ’s divinity, are two sides of the same coin. Christ is the head, and we, the body, make Christ manifest to the world. Some people may not know Christ except what they see in us. We cannot have Christ as our head without being a manifestation of his glory, and if Christ is the head of the Creation and Christ is the head of the Church, that means that when we worship, inside this building and in our daily lives, we are leading the whole visible Creation in turning to God in glory, and living the life of Heaven here on earth.

Christ is the head of the whole Creation, not just the Church. Christ isn’t just concerned with his people, but the whole created world. By him and through him all things were created. Icons, which reflect the full implications Christ’s headship over his Creation, exist precisely because Christ is the head of the whole Creation. We use a censer, a building, icons, water, flowers, and other aspects of our matter-embracing religion as representatives of the whole material Creation over which Christ is head. Christ doesn’t tell us to be spiritual as spirits who are unfortunately trapped in matter; far from it, we are the crowning jewel of the material Creation, and Christ’s headship glorifies the whole Creation and makes it foundational to how we are saved. The universe is a symbol that manifests the glory of its head, Christ.

One example of headship that is immediate to me, although I don’t know how immediate it is to the rest of you, is artistic creation. I create, write, and program, and in a very real sense I am at my fullest when I create. When I create, at first there is a hazy idea that I don’t understand very well. Then I listen to it, and begin struggling with it, trying to understand my creation, and even if I am wrestling with it, I am wrestling less to dominate it than to get myself out of its way so I can help bring it into being. If in one sense I wrestle with it, in another sense I am wrestling with myself to let my creation be what it should be. If I were to simply dominate my creation, I would crush it, breaking its spirit. My best creations are those which I serve, where I use my headship to give my creations freedom and cooperate with them so that they are greater than if I did not give my creations room to breathe. My best work comes, not when I decide, “I am going to create,” but when I cooperate with a creation, love it, serve it, and help it to become real, the creation becomes a share of my spirit.

A great many writers could say that, and I don’t think this is something that is only found in writing, but how something far more general plays out. All of us are called to exercise headship over our work. In a family, the father is the head of the household and the mother is the heart of the household. The mother’s headship over work in the home provides ten thousand touches that make a house a home. A mother’s headship over the home is as much human headship over one’s work as my headship over my creations and writing. What I do when I create is love my creation, serve it, develop it, work with God and with my creation to help it be real. If I’m not mistaken, when a woman makes a house into a real home, she loves it, serves it, develops it, and works with God and what she has to make it real. When a woman makes a house into a warm and inviting home, that’s headship.

What is the relationship between women and the home? In societies where people have best been able to honor what the Bible says about men’s and women’s roles, there is a strong association between women and the home. The home, in those societies, was the main focus of business, charity work, and education, besides the much narrower role played by a home today. To say that women were mainly in the home is to say that they held an important place in one of society’s important institutions, an institution that was the chief home of business, education, hospitality, and what would today be insurance, and held many responsibilities that are denied to housewives today. The isolation felt by many housewives today was much less an issue because women worked together with other women; like men, they worked in adult company. I believe there should be an association between women and the home, and I believe the home should be respected and influential. And, for that matter, I believe that both men and women are sold short with the options they have today. But instead of going too deep into that sort of question, important as it may be, I would like to look at what headship means.

The sanctuary is the head of the nave. Part of what that means is that there is something richer than either if there were just an sanctuary or just a nave. But we’ll miss something fundamental if we only say that the sanctuary is more glorious to the nave. They are connected and part of the same body. They are part of the same organism, and the sanctuary manifests the glory of the sanctuary. There is also a head-body relation between the saint and the icon. Or between the reality a symbol represents, and a symbol. Or between Heaven and earth. Bringing Heaven down to earth is a right ordering of this world. Heaven isn’t just something that happens after death after we serve God by suffering in this world. “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has any heart imagined what God has prepared for those who love him,” but God wants to work Heaven in our lives, beginning here and now. If we are bringing Heaven down to earth, we are realizing God’s design that Heaven be the head of earth, in the fullness of what headship means.

What about husbands and wives? There’s something that we’ll miss today if we just expect wives to submit to their husbands, even if we recognized that that’s tied to an even more difficult assignment for husbands, loving their wives on the model of Christ giving up his own life for the Church. And we need to be countercultural, but there’s something we’ll miss if we just react to the currents in society that make this unattractive. Quite a few heresies got their start in reactions against older heresies; it is spiritually dangerous to simply react against errors, and if feminism might have problems, simply reacting to feminism is likely to have problems. Wives should submit to their husbands, and husbands should love their wives with a costly love, but there’s more.

It bothers me when conservatives say, “I want to turn the clock back… all the way back… to 1954!” If we’re just reacting against some feminists when they say women should be strong and independent, and have no further reference point, we’re likely to defend a femininity that says that women are weak and passive. What’s wrong with that? For starters, it’s not Biblical.

If you want to know God’s version of femininity, read the conclusion of Proverbs. The opening of this conclusion is often translated, “Who can find a good wife?” That’s too weak. It is better translated as, “Who can find a wife of valor,” with “valor” being a word that could be used of a mighty soldier. She is strong—physically strong. The text explicitly mentions her powerful arms. She is active in commerce and charity. There are important differences between this and the feminist picture, but if we are defending an un-Biblical ideal for womanhood, some delicate thing that can’t do anything and is always in a swoon, then our reaction against feminism isn’t going to put us in a much better spot.

And men should be men, but that doesn’t mean that men should be rugged individuals who say, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul!” That is as wrong as saying that Biblical femininity is weak and passive. Perhaps men should be rugged, but to be a man is to be under authority. Trying to be the captain of your soul is spiritually toxic, and perhaps blasphemous. There is one person who can say, “I am the captain of my soul,” and it isn’t Christ. Not even Christ can say that, but only God the Father. Christ’s glory was to be the Son of God, so that the Father was the captain of his soul, and he did the Father’s work. Even Christ was under the headship of the Father, and if you read what John says about the Father and the Son, the fact that Christ was under headship, under authority, is part of his dignity and his own authority. To be a man is, if things are going well, to be a contributing member of a community, and in submission to its authority. Individualism is a severe distortion of masculinity; it may not be feminine, but it is hardly characteristic of healthy masculinity. There are a lot of false and destructive pictures of what a man should be, as well as what a woman should be.

If simply reacting against feminism is a way to miss what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman, it is also a way to miss something more, to miss a broader glory. This something more is foundational to the structure of reality; it is a resonance not only with God’s Creation, but within the nature of God and how the Father’s glory is shown through the Son. This something more is in continuity with God’s headship to Christ, Christ’s headship to the Church, Christ’s headship to the cosmos, Heaven’s headship to earth, the sanctuary’s headship to the nave, the spiritual world’s headship to the physical world, the soul’s headship to the body, contemplation’s headship to action, and other manifestations of a headship relation. On the Sunday of Orthodoxy, we proclaim:

…Thus we declare, thus we assert, thus we preach Christ our true God, and honor as Saints in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in Holy Icons; on the one hand worshipping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord, and on the other hand honoring as true servants of the same Lord of all and accordingly offering them veneration… This is the Faith of the Apostles, this is the Faith of the Fathers, this is the Faith of the Orthodox, this is the Faith which has established the Universe.

What does this have to do with heads and bodies? The word “icon” itself means a body, and its role is to manifest the glory of the saints, as the saints are to manifest the glory of God.

We don’t have a choice about whether we will live in a universe with headship, but we do have a choice whether to work with the grain or against it, work with it to our profit or fight it to our detriment. Let’s make headship part of how we rejoice in God and his Creation.

A Glimpse Through a Crystal

Cover for Firestorm 2034

I lay on my bed, half-awake, half-asleep, the spectres of dreams beginning to flit through my mind. I saw a castle, a bog, a car with computer screens for its wheels, and many other fleeting images before my mind, when the forms and images began to coalesce.

I saw myself a little boy, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, filthy, and clothed in tattered rags. I was at the end of a pathway, at a pair of massive iron doors, set in a wall of granite that reached as far and as high as the eye could see. On these doors were bronze knockers. I reached, and struck the door; it resounded, as of thunder. I struck the door a second time; it resounded again, and I could sense something — a presence? I know not how to name it. Then my hand reached and knocked the door a third time, and the sound echoed, grew louder, stronger. I stood in place only because I was too terrified to run, and then a blast of light seared the air and shattered the doors. A god came out — he looked majestic enough to be a god, although I could not see his face, for it was covered with a veil — and reached his hand down to me, and said, “Welcome, traveler. I am come to show you the world that is to come. I am to show you Heaven.”

I stared in awe and fear, a thousand questions on my mind. And he stood, with a repose that drove away fear. This time, something of the little boy was not only as I saw myself appear on the outside, but inside me; I somehow lost my guile and dignity, and said, “You know what every theologian dreamed of. Can you give me theology from Heaven?”

He laughed, a laugh that burned me and yet was somehow good. He said, “I am sorry, Jonathan. I cannot give you that, because there is no theology in Heaven. It isn’t needed. It is one of the brightest lamps that is no more because the Lamb of God himself is our light. When the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. Did you want an answer to some area that Christians debate?”

I thought, and answered truthfully, “No. I — I don’t know how to explain it. I want something bigger than that.”

The god looked at me, and said, “You have answered well. Calvin, Beza, and Arminius are all up here, all in accordance with each other, and none of them has changed his mind. At least not over the points that Calvinists and Arminians debate. There were plenty of other points where they were wrong. Theology is work well worth doing; it contributes to God’s glory, but the best of theologians make quite a few errors. Keep seeking the heart of God, the something bigger, and you will find it. What else do you want to know?”

“Do you have laughter still, I hope?”

“Yes, certainly.”

“Could you tell me a few jokes from Heaven?”

“No. I will not mock you with things that are too heavy for you. Your funniest jokes have the barest seed the full-grown plant that lives in Heaven and nourishes everyone; you would be destroyed by our humor.”

I looked around, and saw a faint emanation of light from beyond the doorway, a vanishing light; mist and darkness were beginning to appear, and the image looked vague and hazy. I asked, “Why can’t I see?”

The being before me said, “You don’t see. Or, rather, I am seeing with you and for you. Your eyes cannot bear the load of even my veiled face. I appear to you as you are asleep, beginning to dream, but no such thing exists with us. Sleep is an image of death, and has no place in Heaven. Yet only when you are sleeping is your guard down low enough to let Heaven in.”

I asked, “Why should I be granted the special privilege of seeing Heaven?”

He said to me, “It is not nearly so rare a privilege as you think. Heaven is breathed by much of art, literature, music, by friendships, deeds, prayer; in many of these things, the people have insights of Heaven, only not consciously. A great many works you ignore breathe Heaven in a way you will never come close to. The Father is dealing with you as he chooses to deal with you, just as he is dealing with others as he chooses to deal with them. Are you ready to come in?”

I hesitated and said, “One more question. Theology won’t exist in Heaven; laughter will exist aplenty, too real for me to bear its form. I have some guesses about mathematics, which I will not venture to guess. Will I see anything that I know in Heaven?”

He said, “Yes, indeed, a great many things. You will come to see things in Heaven that will make you wonder how you ever saw them on earth without seeing Heaven in them. The custom among believers of holding hands when praying — community and touch (yes, I know you’ve written a treatise on touch) naturally accompanying communion with God — exists here, filled with the resurrection life as never before. The blessed here who join hands in prayer are totally present to God and totally present to each other — save that it is not only soul-body touching soul-body, but resurrected spirit-body touching resurrected spirit-body. It is a form of communion with God and man. At least that is as much of it as I can tell you in the words of your language. You who wield your language with skill and power have struggled with its limitations, while still a mortal who has never touched the lifegiving energy of the Great River — nor shall you see it tonight. You may see Heaven when you are with me, as you may see Brazil by riding about Rio de Janeiro for an hour on a bus — that is to say, you cannot see one part in a thousand of what is there, nor can you comprehend one part in a thousand of what you see. You will still learn much. Jonathan, you are really not that far off from joining us; your life on earth is passing, fleeting, however many times it may appear to drag; when you will die, you will look around you and say, ‘Am I in God’s presence already? That was short.’ Then you will drink in full from the wellspring of truth —

“Jonathan, I know why you thought but did not ask about mathematics. Mathematics exists here, as an art form — you were right when you thought of all mortal mathematics having to pass through the gates of finiteness. It has to be decidable in a finite time. That is no longer part of man; we can look and immediately know the answer to any of your great unsolved questions. As to how there can still be mathematics when every person can immediately see the answer to the hardest question — I can’t explain it to you, but I assure you that God provides an answer to that more stunning than anything a mathematician on earth will ever know. Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has any mind imagined what God has done with the things his children treasure.

“Come, take my hand. We will pass through the doorway together.”

I gasped as he took my hand. It was as if I was holding a burning coal. I looked at my hand, and saw to my surprise that I was looking at the hands of a man again, one whom the fire did not wound. Then the god gave me a pull, and I passed through the blazing portal.

It was with a disappointment that I looked around and saw that I was only in a candy store.

I looked at the wall of glass bowls skeptically, not being in a particular mood for candy. My host said, “Come on! Take as much as you want! It’s on me.” I took a colorful assortment of candies, and then went out into a sunny field. We stood, looked at the clouds for a while, and then dove into a pool of water. After swimming, he asked me, “Do you want to come to an amusement park? There are roller coasters there unlike any you’ve seen on earth.”

I hesitated, and said, “This isn’t much like what I expected in Heaven. This is like what one of my professors called a Utopia of spoiled children. I expect to see pleasure in Heaven, but if Heaven only offers early pleasure — is this all there is to Heaven?”

My host looked at me and said, “You are quite the philosopher. Pleasure is not all there is to Heaven, but God told me to bring you in by this gateway. You need to become as a little child to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and there is something a little boy sees when he is told, ‘In Heaven you can eat all the candy you want,’ that you do not. Become as a little child. Would you like some cotton candy?”

I tried to submit to God’s will; I’m not sure I got my attitude right, but I tried at least to do the right thing. So I took the candy, and — have I been blind all these years? I know it sounds presumptuous, but I think I really did taste that candy as a little boy would. It left me thirsty, and I am sure it is only because I was in Heaven that it did not leave a big sticky mess all over my face and clothes, but I tasted it — sheer, simple bliss. I’ve heard the old quotation about how a child can’t believe that making love is better than ice cream; at that point, perhaps only partly because I am not married, I began to suspect that that statement stems from a forgetfulness of what a child experiences when he eats ice cream — something that is the highlight of a day, the highlight of a week, something that can make a bad day into a good day.

Some people came along, and we began talking, and it wasn’t until a good bit into the conversation when I realized that the conversation was switching fluidly between languages — Italian one moment, Arabic the next, then Sanskrit, then the unbroken language from before the Curse of Babel, the language of the Dawn of Creation — and I began to cry. One of the things I know I can never have in this life is a mastery of all languages — and something in Heaven, perhaps even that cheap candy, had affected me so that I was able to move among languages and cultures among the gods and the goddesses that surrounded me. There was something else I don’t know how to describe — a change that was beginning to be wrought in me. It wasn’t so much that I was enjoying what was around me, as that I had an enjoyment coming through who I was. And it was not a cause of pride.

Then, as it were, a veil was torn, and I saw one — what can I call it? a rock, or a flame, or a pulsing mound of energy, unmoved and yet dancing, and around it a constellation of little rocks, each one both like the first rock and totally unlike any other. They were all part of a dance, a dance which combined total order with total freedom — and I was part of the dance! I was aware of a kind of communion with the other dancers; space did not separate us. I would not have been more honored if they had all been spinning about me; there is something about it that I cannot describe, even badly.

The dance continued, and as it continued I saw myself walking through a vast hallway, with floors of marble and shimmering golden trees. There was a stand, and on it lay open a massive book. My host opened it, and I only glanced at the pages — enough to see that it recorded the entire story of creation, from Eden to the Second Coming. My life was written on it, every pure thought and action, every sin; I sat stunned that such a thing could be.

“Every place in Heaven is special, unique,” my guest said, “and this is a place of remembrance, of story. The special, sweet, fleeting time on earth that each of us had, is remembered for the goods it had that will not exist here. Choosing the right when one’s nature is warped and sinful, making disciples of unbelievers, penitence, forgiveness, and ten thousand other things, from marriage to even theology — they do not exist for us, except as a far off memory. We stand clothed in the good deeds of our life on earth — what we could do in the limited time we had. You have a very special place, part of the tiny minority of runners who approach the finish line, while the rest stood outside, cheering. This is the Story of how we came to be, and it is your Story too. Cherish your time as mortal man; it will not last long. You have not long before the perfect comes and the imperfect disappears. You know how children always wish to grow up, how they rush on, and how adults see childhood as a special time. You want to be through with the race, to have received your crown. Rightly so. At the same time, wish to make the best use of the fleeting moments, of the scarce time before you enter into glory. Before you will know it, many of the goods you know now will be only a memory.

“I would like to show you one more thing. Walk this way.” He took me, and opened a door, to a place that seemed to open out onto a countryside, or a palace. The palace had a courtyard, a pool in which to swim, a view onto forest. Inside were books, and meeting places, and a tinkering room, and a gallery of artwork. “You know that our Lord said, ‘In my Father’s house there are many rooms.’ This is one of those rooms. It is a room that the Father has prepared for a believer, knowing all of his life and his virtues and his good works. Each one holds things in common with others, and is different. And they’re connected, though you can’t see the connections now. Would you like to know whose room you are looking at?”

“Yes, very much. I would like to meet him,” I said.

“It’s your room, Jonathan. And you haven’t seen the tenth part of it. You will forever be king over a corner of Heaven, having this place in which to commune with God and invite other people over — and visit their rooms. It is impossible on earth to be friends with a great many people — but not here.”

As I was listening to my guide, I heard footsteps behind me. I looked, and saw a Lamb next to me, soft and gentle. I took it into my arms, and it nestled against my heart. I held the Lamb for a while, and then said, “This guardian fills me with the terror of his majesty; how is it that you do not?” The Lamb looked into my eyes and said, “All this in time you shall understand — when you do not need to. I will hold you in my heart then, as I hold you in my heart now. Would you like to come here? For real?”

I thought and said, “It would not be the best thing. I have longed many times for Heaven, but then where would my creations be? I hope that the time will pass quickly, but I have work to do on earth. Lord, please help me bear the time until then, and let it be fruitful! But I want to enter into Heaven after living to the full the lifetime of work you have for me — whether it is a long lifetime or being killed in a car accident on the road to work tomorrow. I want to come to Heaven through earth.”

He said, “You have chosen well, mystic. It will not be that long. And I will always be with you.”

I awoke with a jerk, and looked around. 9:58 PM. Time to get a good night’s sleep and be rested for tomorrow. And pray for God’s providence in my work.

The Fulfillment of Feminism

Cover for Yonder

There was one time when I was sitting in Danada Convenient Care, waiting for a blood draw. A mother led in a little girl who was bawling, sat her down in the waiting area, and began to attend to all the little details: sign in on a clipboard, speak with the office staff, sign a waiver, present an insurance card. The girl was bawling because she had apparently slammed her thumbnail in a door. After a little while I came over and began talking with her. I asked her what her favorite color was. I asked, “What kind of musical instrument does a dog play?” (answer: a trombone). I tried to get her talking, but most of what I said went over her head. After a while, I realized two things. First, I was failing rather miserably to engage her in conversation; I literally could not think of many things to say that a child of that age could respond to. And second, she stopped crying. Completely. I was struck by the near-total lack of pain in her face as she looked at me.

Eventually, I was called in for my blood draw. When I came out, things were totally different. The mother was sitting next to her daughter, and paying attention to her. The daughter was drawn into her mother’s attention. I said goodbye and left.

On another occasion, I was at a dinner at someone’s house, and my eyes were drawn to a goldfish in a fishbowl. I asked the hostess how old the goldfish was, and her answer was followed shortly by my asking how she managed to keep a goldfish for that long. And I remember vividly her answer. She said, “I talk to it,” and then stooped down and began talking to the fish like it was a small child. The fish began eagerly swimming towards her, as if it were trying to swim through the glass to meet her.

Love is a spiritual force, and I thought her answer was looney then because I didn’t understand that there are more than material forces that can affect whether a fish is healthy. I thought that the idea of love or hate affecting how a plant grows made a great exotic feature in fantasy, but in the real world science accounts for all the factors in how long a fish lives. Of course it matters that the hostess fed the goldfish and kept the fishbowl clean, but the reason the fish was alive and healthy was because she loved it. (And she’s a woman with a big heart.) And it matters, no doubt, that I made eye contact with the little girl and squatted to try to be at eye level. But the reason I was able to draw her out of intense pain was the power that love has. I can count on my fingers the times I’ve been in worse pain than smashing my thumbnails as a child; her pain was atrocious. What was strong enough to pull her out of that pain wasn’t my posture, or anything suave at my clumsy failures to say things that were age-appropriate. What pulled her out of her deep pain was love, and I was delighted to see her mother, who had been so busy with a thousand necessary details, giving her attention and love to her now comforted daughter. The mother told me as I said goodbye, “You have a very gentle way about you,” and I hold that story in my heart as one of my triumphs.

It’s hard to pick out a theme more foundational to feminist ethics, and perhaps the whole of feminism, than caring. Many feminists understand feminism as trying to move from a world dominated by male aggression to a world nurtured through motherly love and caring. And I would like to talk about love in Orthodoxy after talking about aggression.

The term “male aggression” is used a lot. The word “aggression” has a double meaning. Narrowly, “aggression” means “unprovoked violence,” a violence that is evil. But there is another meaning to “aggressive,” when a doctor pursues an “aggressive” treatment, for instance. Here “aggressive” does not literally mean violence and need not be at all evil… but there is a connection between the two. There is a real reason why we speak of an “aggressive” business plan as well as an “aggressive” assault. Why does “aggressive” sometimes mean “energetically active,” something that can be good, when the “main” usage is for something despicable?

Men are more likely to be aggressive than women. In which sense? Actually, both, and there’s a link between the two senses that offers insight into what it means to be a man. Talking about “male aggression” is not simply man-bashing, even if it is often done in exactly that fashion. There is something spirited and something fiery that is part of manhood, something that can be very destructive, but something that can be channeled. I don’t think any of us need to be told that masculine aggressiveness can be destructive. But that is not the full story of masculine energy. Channeled properly, male aggressive energy means projects. It means adventures and exploration. It means building buildings, questing after discoveries, giving vision to a community. The same thing that can be very destructive can also energize a man’s gifts to society. It can be transformed.

I would pose the question: If masculine aggression can be transformed in this manner, what about feminine and motherly caring?

Love is big in Orthodoxy. God is love. God is light, and other things can also be said, but he is love. The entirety of ethics and moral law is about loving God and one’s neighbor. The entirety of spiritual discipline, which Orthodoxy as well as feminist spirituality recognize as important for sustained growth, is a spiritual support not simply to one’s salvation, but to love. If my spiritual discipline does not turn me in love towards you, it is fundamentally incomplete. Spiritual discipline without love for others is self-contradictory as a friendship without another person.

What’s the relationship between love and caring? Are they synonyms? There is a deep connection, but I believe that an important difference shows up in the question of abortion.

“My body, my choice!” makes a powerful and easy-to-remember political slogan. But nobody believes it, or at least people who have abortions don’t believe it. Post-abortion is not about assuring women that it was just a surgery that removed something unwanted, but quite to the contrary is about helping women grieve the loss of a child. You may be able to make a legal argument that the child is part of the mother’s body, or say it’s just a potential life that was stopped. But trying to use that in post-abortion counseling is like telling someone who’s drinking milk that has gone bad that the milk is really quite fresh. You might be able to convince other people that the milk is really quite fresh, but not the person who’s actually drinking it. And women who have abortions are the ones who are drinking the rancid milk. In coffee table discussions you can deny that the death of a child is involved and say it’s just unwanted tissue. If you’re not drinking the milk, you can be conned into believing it’s still fresh. But if you’re drinking it? Post-abortion counseling helps women grieve the loss of a child, and for that reason cannot say “It was just a potential life!”

If women who have abortions don’t believe the rhetoric, then why does abortion take place? Quite often, these women feel stuck between a rock and a hard place in which there seem to simply be no good options. This is part of why the pro-life movement has made a major shift to offering compassion and practical help to people in that position. It’s a difficult position, and feminists will often argue that abortion is the most caring way out. It is not caring, the line goes, to bring a child into a situation where it will not be cared for, and women should be caring to themselves by not saddling themselves with too much responsibility. And so the ethics of caring sometimes finds abortion the appropriate choice.

In many ethical frameworks you can get away with saying that a mother’s love is one love among others. That simply doesn’t fly here. In feminism, a mother’s love is considered the most intimate love and a mother’s caring is meant to be the foundation of a better way of living. It is feminists who have given motherly caring the greatest emphasis and the most central place, and feminists who most fervently defend what any woman who’s had an abortion knows and grieves as the loss of a child. It’s almost as if a coalition of historians and archivists were the ones most fervently defending the practice of burning old documents.

My reason for mentioning this is not simply irony. My reason for pointing this out is to suggest that something’s wrong, and maybe motherly caring isn’t strong enough to support the weight feminism asks it to bear. Part of this odd picture is surely rationalization: part of what feminists want is the freedom to live a certain way but not deal with its consequences: be sexually active and not deal with children when they don’t want to, and if killing, or in today’s carefully chosen terms, “reproductive choice,” is the necessary price for freedom on those terms, they accept that price. Part of this is rationalization, but not all. Part of this is the weakness of caring when it is asked to do what feminists hope it will do. Asking motherly caring to do what feminists want is kind of like trying to drive a top-notch car engine to work. It may be a very good engine, and an engine may be indispensible to any functioning car, but things go much better if we have the whole car. I’m not just saying that abortion is wrong. I’m saying that if the people who bear the banner of “mother’s love” as the healing balm for society’s ills are the ones who defend that practice, we have a red flag that may point to another problem: maybe caring might not do what feminists think it does. Maybe it’s not enough.

So what would a whole car look like?

I’d like to quote a passage that has one teacher’s take on love:

Then a Jewish law scholar stood up to test Jesus, and said “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus answered him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”

He said to him, “You must love the Lord your God out of your whole heart, with your whole soul, with your whole strength, and with your whole mind, and love your neighbor even as you love yourself.”

He said, “That’s right; do this and you will live.”

But the scholar wanted to be proved righteous before Jesus. He said, “Who is my neighbor?”

Jesus answered and said, “Someone was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and brigands assaulted him, stripping him and leaving him half dead. And by providence a priest was going down that way and saw him and passed by, giving him a wide berth. Likewise, a Levite was travelling the same way, saw him, and gave him a wide berth. Then a travelling Samaritan came across him and was moved with mercy, in the depths of his bowels, and came over, and dressed his wounds with oil and wine, mounted him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and nurtured him. And the next day he gave a good chunk of his wealth to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him, and if he needs anything more, I will repay you when I come back.’ Now which one of these three do you suppose showed himself a neighbor to the man who was assaulted by brigands?”

He said, “The one who showed mercy to him.”

Jesus said to him, “Go and live that way.”

(Luke 10:25-37, my translation) Cloud and Townsend’s appropriately titled Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life argues that this story is a good illustration of their version of boundaries, and that was when I started listening to some nagging doubts about their theory. They said this was a good example of a measured response: the Samaritan made a moderate and limited response, got the Jew to safety and paid some moderate expenses, and left. Cloud and Townsend ask us to imagine the wounded Jew saying “I need you to stay here,” and the moderate Samaritan drawing a their-version-of-appropriate-boundary and saying “I’ve made a moderate response and need to move on.” and saying “No,” the way their version of boundaries draws a line and says, “No.” And I have not heard a treatment of this story that is further from the truth.

The route from Jerusalem to Jericho was up until the eighteenth century a dangerous place with bandits, and one well-known ruse was to have one bandit lying in the way, apparently grievously wounded, and if someone stopped, the bandits would take advantage of that mercy to assault and rob him. Jesus was saying that the Samaritan stopped in a bad part of Chicago in the middle of the night because a voice in a dark alley said, “Help me.” And the Jews and Samaritans hated each other; they didn’t have, like today, a setup where people want not to be racist. For that Samaritan to help that Jew was for one gang member to stick his neck out pretty far for a stranger who was from a hostile gang. This is near the top of stupid things you absolutely don’t do. Was Jesus exaggerating? He was making a quite ludicrous exaggeration to make the point that your neighbor is every person you meet and every person you do not meet, every person who you like, every person who bothers you, every person who is unkind, every enemy and every pest you loathe. Jesus was exaggerating, in fact, to respond to someone who was trying to be too comfortable and make him pointedly uncomfortable. I believe the other person was expecting Jesus to draw a reasonable line of reasonable boundaries to his love, and Jesus was quite blunt about setting an impossible and unreasonable standard.

If we try hard enough, we can shut our eyes and neutralize this story. We can neutralize how uncomfortable it makes us; we can neutralize any way this story might contradict today’s psychological dogma of boundaries… and we can neutralize the priceless pearl that this story is meant to help us find. And this story does hold a priceless pearl for us.

The point is not that if someone asks you into a situation that makes you uncomfortable, you must go. I don’t really think the point is to set much of any kind of literal prescription for how far your love must go. The point is that what is being asked is impossible. Simply impossible, and beyond your power, and beyond my power. It’s a command of, “You must be strong enough to lift a mountain.” If someone said, “You must be strong enough to lift four hundred pounds off the ground,” that would be possible for some people with dedicated training. But the most powerfully built athlete who goes through the most disciplined training cannot lift a medium-sized boulder, let alone a mountain. Jesus isn’t saying, “You must be strong enough to lift four hundred pounds,” which is something that some of us could achieve through a gargantuan effort. He’s saying, “You must be strong enough to lift a mountain,” and he’s exaggerating, but the whole point is that he’s asking something impossible. Only the divine can love that way.

The whole secret hinges on that. The divine became human that the human might become divine. The Creator entered into the creation that the creation might enter into the Creator. Orthodoxy is not a set of rules, however good, to safeguard purely human love. The point of Orthodoxy is to be transformed by the divine love so we can live the life that God lives and love with the love that God loves. It is to live the life of Heaven, beginning here and now. It is to transfigure every human love so that it becomes divine love. Out of love, God became as we are, that out of love we might become as he is. And what feminism seeks in caring grows to its full stature in Orthodoxy.

There is something fundamental that is missed about Orthodoxy if it is understood as a set of practices organized around love, or a set of ideas in which love is prominent, or a movement which tries to help people be more loving. That has some truth, but the truth is more than that. The human cannot be understood without the divine; to be human is to participate, however imperfectly, in God. Orthodoxy can no longer be understood as a movement or a system of ideas and practices than a campfire can be understood as a collection of sticks. The sticks are not just arranged a certain way in a campfire; they burn, and you cannot understand even the arrangement of the sticks unless you are aware of the fire that is the reason they are arranged. Not only to be Orthodox but to be human is to be made in the image of God, which in Orthodoxy has always meant that we are not separate miniatures of God, but manifestations of his glory. God is not merely a First Cause who started things off; he is the blazing Sun whose light shines on everything that daylight illuminates.

Orthodoxy is the fulfillment of feminism. If feminism is a deep question, Orthodoxy is a deep answer that responds to the depths of motherly love with the limitless depths of divine love. This is not just with love. More spiritual feminists tend to like the idea of synchronicity, the idea that materialist causation isn’t the whole picture. Synchronicity is the idea that they’re not just isolated domino chains with one domino knocking another domino down; the chains are linked in ways that go beyond dominos bumping into each other. There is a richer picture. And Orthodoxy believes all this and more. Orthodoxy has never been through the Enlightenment, when people tried to argue that scientific knowledge is the only valid kind of knowledge and that the kind of cause-and-effect science studies is not only valid but the only way things come about. People used to believe something richer, and in Orthodoxy we still do: that there can be reasons why things happen; there is an explanation for “Why?” and not just a mechanism that answers “How?” Dominoes do fall, but you will never understand the picture if you only think there are isolated chains of dominoes. All of this is part of the Orthodox understanding of divine providence. Yet providence is deeper than synchronicity. Synchronicity is a jailbreak; providence is a voyage home. Less flatteringly, synchronicity is providence with its head cut off. Synchronicity recognizes interesting designs in the events of our lives. Providence turns from those interesting designs to an interesting designer, and to some Orthodox, the idea of trying to be spiritual by delving into synchronicity and other themes of Jungian psychology is like inviting people over for wine and cheese and serving Velveeta. We have Camembert, we have Brie, we have goat cheese, and when Orthodox see how often “being spiritual” to a feminist means “digging into Jungian psychology,” we want to tell you that Velveeta isn’t your only choice! Jesus said, “You will know a tree by its fruits:” people’s lives can offer a serious red flag about whether you should trust them and trust what they say. Orthodoxy has saints with better lives than a psychiatrist widely known to have slept with his patients in a relationship that was far more problematic than a mere case of raging hormones. Velveeta’s the easiest cheese to find at most stores, but it’s possible to find better. Orthodoxy deeply engaged the pillars of Jungian psychology far earlier than Jung did, and the reason we reach for something better is that there is something better to reach for.

Feminism senses that there is something wrong with Western culture, and is searching for healing. One of the strange things about Orthodoxy is that you realize you were right all along. Becoming Orthodox has been a confirmation of things I’ve sensed, and this is not because I was a particular type of Christian or because I am a man, but because I’m human. I believe that becoming Orthodox, to a feminist, will mean much more than an affirmation of what feminism yearns for. But that’s not the only strange thing. One Calvin and Hobbes strip shows the two characters walking through a wood. Calvin asks, “Do you believe in evolution? You know, do you believe that humans evolved from monkeys?” Hobbes’ answer is simple: “I can’t tell any difference.” The strip ends with Calvin chasing Hobbes. Orthodoxy might answer the question, “Do you believe evolution is the right answer to the question, ‘Why is there life as we know it?'” by saying:

No, evolution is absolutely not the right answer to the question, “Why is there life as we know it?” For that matter, it is not even a wrong answer to the question, “Why is there life as we know it?” It is not an answer to any “Why?” question at all. It is an answer to a “How?” question, and even if evolution were the whole truth and didn’t have any problems answering, “How is there life as we know it?” it is a mechanism to tell how things happen and not an explanation of why things happened. To say, “Why is there life as we know it? Because life evolved just like the theory of evolution says,” is a bit like saying, “Why is the dining room light on? Because the switch is in the ‘on’ position, causing electricity to flow so that the light glows brightly.” That’s how the light is on, but the reason why the light on is that someone decided, “I want light.”

The theory of evolution doesn’t answer that question. It might answer a different question, but the theory of evolution is not so much false as a distraction, if you are interested in the great and terrible question, “Why?” Instead of figuring out whether evolution is the correct mechanism, you might realize that it answers a different question, and start to ask the question, “Why is there life as we know it?”

“Why is there life as we know it?” is a meaty question, a you can grow into, and if you grow into it, you can learn about a creation that reflects God’s glory. You can learn about layers of symbol, and a physical world that is tied up with the spiritual and manifests its glory. You can learn about many layers of existence, and the body that has humanity as its head. You can learn that the mysteries in a woman’s heart resonate with the mysteries of life, and begin to see how a woman in particular is an image of the earth. You can learn about all sorts of spiritual qualities that the theory of evolution will never lead you to ask about. And you might learn that there are other questions, deeper questions to grow into, and start to grow into something even deeper than trying to answer questions.

So no, the theory of evolution is not the right way to answer the question, “Why is there life as we know it?”

And most of the time it happens without any philosophy or need to wrap your mind around some dense or subtle idea. Part of Orthodoxy is being caught off-guard by God again and again. It’s being informed, “I can’t tell any difference.” It’s asking how to pursue a great goal and learning that you shouldn’t have been pursuing that goal in the first place. It’s trying to find the best way to get all your ducks lined up, and asking the Lord’s help, and realizing that the Lord is calling for you to trust him and let him worry about the ducks. If he wants to. These are two sides of a paradox, and Orthodoxy presents them both to everyone.

And both are part of coming home.

Your Site’s Missing Error Page

I looked through my search logs and decided to put in a custom-made redirect for “porn” or “xxx“. This decision was, to put it politely, motivated by data. Decisively motivated by data. [N.B.: This has since been on my site when I migrated to a search solution that doesn’t provide that flexibility.]

My site has so far as I can tell zero SEO to advertise porn, unless you count sporadic uses of the word “porn”, which should appear waaaaaayy down the search results list compared to real porn sites, but…

I would tentatively suggest that handling of searches for porn be treated like professional 404 / 500 / … pages on sites run by people who care about people trapped by porn, and people assaulted by people trapped by porn. (You’re welcome to check out my 404 page, but that’s beside the point of this email.) In the abstract, coding for every search for porn and only searches for porn is probably as hard as solving the artificial intelligence problem, but in the concrete it’s easy. Someone searching for “xxx” is not really searching for a letter signed with kisses! You’ll catch much more than 90% of attempts to search for porn simply by filtering for “porn” or “xxx“, and less than 1% of people genuinely searching your site (who could still possibly be accommodated by this “missing error page.”)

So if you’re running a website, do your best to have an appropriate error page for people searching it for porn.

Feel free to forward this on to other webmasters who care about possibly reaching a few of the people searching for porn on their sites. Those visitors are in a deep trap.

You can see the custom error page here.

Dark Patterns / Anti-Patterns and Cultural Context Study of Scriptural Texts: A Case Study in Craig Keener’s “Paul, Women, and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul”

CJS Hayward
christos.jonathan.hayward@gmail.com
CJSHayward.com

Diploma in Theology and Religious Studies, 2003
Faculty of Divinity
University of Cambridge
20 May 2003

Abstract

The author suggests how the concept of ‘patterns’ in architecture and computer science, or more specifically ‘dark patterns’ / ‘anti-patterns’, may provide a helpful vehicle to explicitly communicate tacit knowledge concerning problematic thought. The author also provides a pilot study which seeks to provide a sample analysis identifying indicators for the ‘surprising cultural find’ pattern in which cultural context is misused to explain away offending Bible passages.

Introduction to Patterns, Dark Patterns, and Anti-patterns

The technical concept of pattern is used in architecture and computer science, and the synonymous dark patterns and anti-patterns refer to patterns that are not recurring best practices so much as recurring pathologies; my encounter with them has been as a computer programmer in connection with the book nicknamed ‘GoF’[1]. Patterns do not directly provide new knowledge about how to program; what they do provide is a way to take knowledge that expert practitioners share on a tacit level, and enable them both to discuss this knowledge amongst themselves and effectively communicate it to novice programmers. It is my belief that the concept is useful to Biblical studies in providing a way to discuss knowledge that is also held on a tacit level and is also beneficial to be able to discuss explicitly, and furthermore that dark patterns or anti-patterns bear direct relevance. I hope to give a brief summary of the concept of patterns, explaining their application to Biblical studies, then give a pilot study exploring one pattern, before some closing remarks.

Each pattern consists of a threefold rule, describing:

  1. A context.
  2. A set of forces within that context.
  3. A resolution to those forces.

In the contexts of architecture and computer science, patterns are used to describe best practices which keep recurring and which embody a certain ‘quality without a name’. I wish to make a different application, to identifying and describing certain recurring problematic ways of thought in Biblical or theological inquiry which may be understood as dark patterns, which often seem to be interlaced with sophistry and logical fallacy.

Two examples of what a dark pattern, or anti-pattern might be are the consolation prize, and the surprising cultural find. I would suggest that the following provide instances of the consolation prize: discussion of a spiritual resurrection, flowering words about the poetic truth of Genesis 1, and Calvin’s eucharistic theology. If you speak of a spiritual resurrection that occurs instead of physical resurrection, you can draw Christians far more effectively than if you plainly say, ‘I do not believe in Christ’s physical resurrection.’ The positive doctrine that is presented is a consolation prize meant to keep the audience from noticing what has been taken away. The context includes a text that (taken literally) a party wants to dismiss. The forces include the fact that Christians are normally hesitant to dismiss Scripture, and believe that insights can give them a changed and deepened understanding. The resolution is to dress up the dismissal of Scripture as a striking insight. Like other patterns, this need not be all reasoned out consciously; I suggest, via a quasi-Darwinian/meme propagation mechanism, that dismissals of Scripture that follow some such pattern are more likely to work (and therefore be encountered) than i.e. a dismissal of Scripture that is not merely undisguised but offensive.

In the surprising cultural find, a meticulous study is made of a passage’s cultural context to find some basis to neutralise the passage so that its apparent meaning does not apply to us. The context is similar to that of the consolation prize, if more specific to a contemporary Western cultural setting. The forces, beyond those mentioned for the consolation prize, include ramifications of period awareness and the Standard Social Science Model: there is a very strong sense of how culture and period can influence people, and they readily believe claims about long ago and far away that which would seem fishy if said about people of our time and place. The resolution is to use the passage’s cultural setting to produce disinformation: the fruits of careful scholarly research have turned up a surprising cultural find and the passage’s apparent meaning does not apply to us. The passage may be presented, for instance, to mean something quite different from what it appears to mean, or to address a specific historical situation in a way that clearly does not apply to us.

It is the dark pattern of the surprising cultural find that I wish to investigate as a pilot case study in this thesis.

Case Study

Opening Comments

The aim of this case study is to provide a pilot study of how the surprising cultural find may be identified as a dark pattern. In so doing, I analyse one sample text closely, with reference to comparison texts when helpful.

I use the terms yielding to refer to analysis from scholars who presumably have interests but allow the text to contradict them, and unyielding to refer to analysis that will not allow the text to contradict the scholar’s interests. Yielding analysis does not embody the surprising cultural find dark pattern, while unyielding analysis does. I consider the boundary to be encapsulated by the question, ‘Is the text allowed to say “No!” to a proposed position?’

Ideally, one would compare two scholarly treatments that are alike in every fashion save that one is yielding and the other is unyielding. Finding a comparison text, I believe, is difficult because I was searching for a yielding text with the attributes of one that was unyielding. Lacking a perfect pair, I chose Peter T. O’Brien’s The Letter to the Ephesians[2] and Bonnie Thurston’s Reading Colossians, Ephesians & 2 Thessalonians: A Literary and Theological Commentary[3] to represent yielding analysis and Craig Keener’s Paul, Women, Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul [4] to represent unyielding analysis. I was interested in treatment of Ephesians 5:21-33. When I use Biblical references without a book, I will always be referring to Ephesians. All three of secondary sources present themselves as making the fruits of scholarly research accessible to the layperson. O’Brien provides an in-depth, nonfeminist commentary. Thurston provides a concise, feminist commentary. Keener provides an in-depth, Biblical Egalitarian monograph. Unfortunately, the ordered copy of Thurston did not arrive before external circumstances precluded the incorporation of new materials (and may have been misidentified, meaning that my advisor and I both failed after extensive searching to find a yielding feminist or egalitarian treatment of the text). My study is focused on Keener with comparison to O’Brien where expedient.

There seems to be an interconnected web of distinguishing features to these dark patterns, laced with carefully woven sophistry, and there are several dimensions on which a text may be examined. The common-sense assumption that these features are all independent of each other seems to be debatable. One example of this lack of independence is the assumption that what an author believes is independent of whether the analysis is yielding: the suboptimal comparison texts were selected partly because of the difficulty a leading Christians for Biblical Equality scholar and I experienced trying to locate yielding feminist analyses other than Thurston in Tyndale’s library. I do not attempt to seriously investigate the interconnections, beyond commenting that features seem interconnected and less independent of each other than most scholars would assume by default.

The substance of my inquiry focuses on observable attributes of the text. I believe that before that point, observing a combination of factors may provide cues. I will mention these factors, but not develop them; there are probably others:

  • Is the book a monograph organised around one of today’s hot issues, or e.g. a commentary organised around the contents of a Biblical text?
  • If you just open the book to its introduction, do you meet forceful persuasion? Are those first pages written purely to persuade, or do they attempt other endeavours (e.g. give factual or theoretical background that is not especially polemical)? What is the approach to persuasion?
  • Does the book contain anything besides cultural arguments finding that Biblical texts which apparently contradict the author’s camp need not be interpreted that way?
  • How much does the author appear able to question our Zeitgeist (in a direction other than a more thorough development of assumptions in our Zeitgeist)?
  • What, in general, does the publisher try to do? The publisher is not the author, but publishers have specific aims and goals. It would seem to require explanation to say that a company indiscriminately publishes yielding and unyielding analysis because both resonate equally well with its editorial climate.

There will be a decided imbalance between attention paid to Keener and O’Brien. Part of this is due to external constraints, and part is due to a difference between O’Brien and Keener. With one major exception, described shortly, O’Brien’s analysis doesn’t run afoul of the concern I am exploring. If I were writing cultural commentary for my texts as Keener and O’Brien write cultural commentary for their texts, I would ideally spend as much time explaining the backgrounds to what Keener and O’Brien said. I believe they are both thinkers who were shaped by, draw on, and are critical of their cultures and subcultures. Explaining what they said, as illuminated by their context, would require parity in treatment. However, I do not elaborate their teachings set in context, but explore a problem that is far more present in Keener than in O’Brien or Thurston. I have more of substance to say about how Keener exhibits a problem than how O’Brien doesn’t. As such, after describing a problem, I might give a footnote reference to a passage in O’Brien which shows someanalogy without seeming to exhibit the problem under discussion, but I will not systematically attempt to make references to O’Brien’s yielding analysis as wordy as explanations of Keener’s unyielding analysis.

The one significant example of unyielding analysis noted in O’Brien is in the comment on 5:21: O’Brien notes that reciprocal submission is not enjoined elsewhere in the Bible, points out that ‘allelous’ occurs in some contexts that do not lend themselves to reciprocal reading (‘so that men should slay one another’[5]), and concludes that ‘Believers, submit to one another,’ means only that lower-status Christians should submit to those placed above them. This is as problematic as other instances of unyielding analysis, and arguably more disturbing as it lacks some of the common indicators alerting the careful reader to be suspicious. There is a point of contact between this treatment and Keener’s: both assume that 5:21 and 5:22-6:9 are not merely connected but are saying the same thing, and it is one thing only. It is assumed that the text cannot enjoin of us both symmetrical and asymmetrical submission, so one must be the real commandment, and the other is explained away. Both Keener and O’Brien end up claiming that something is commanded in 5:21 with clarificatory examples following, without asserting that either 5:21 or 5:22-6:9 says something substantively different from the other about submission. I will not further analyse this passage beyond this mention: I consider it a clear example of unyielding analysis. This is the one part of O’Brien I have read of which I would not say, ‘…and this is an example of analogous concerns addressed by yielding scholarship.’

The introductions to O’Brien and Keener provided valuable cues as to the tone subsequently taken by the texts. Both are written to persuade a claim that some of their audience rejects, but the divergence in how they seek to persuade is significant. Keener’s introduction is written to persuade the reader of Biblical Egalitarianism: in other words, of a position on one of today’s current issues. The beginning of O’Brien’s introduction tries to persuade the reader of Pauline authorship for Ephesians, which they acknowledge to be an unusual position among scholars today; the introduction is not in any direct sense about today’s issues. O’Brien’s introduction is written both to persuade and introduce the reader to scholarly perspectives on background; while nontechnical, it is factually dense and heavy with footnotes. Keener’s introduction seems to be written purely to persuade: he give statistics[6] concerning recent treatment of women which are highly emotionally charged, no attempt being made to connect them to the text or setting of the Pauline letters. Keener’s introduction uses emotion to bypass rationality, using loaded language and various other forms of questionable persuasion explored below; a naive reader first encountering this debate in Keener’s introduction could well wonder how any compassionate person could be in the other camp. O’Brien works to paint a balanced picture, and gives a fair account of the opposing view before explaining why he considers it inadequate. O’Brien seeks to persuade through logical argument, and his book’s pages persuade (or fail to persuade) as the reader finds his arguments to be sufficient (or insufficient) reason to accept its conclusions.

Emotional Disinformation

Among the potential indicators found in Keener, the first broad heading I found could be described as factual disinformation and emotional disinformation. ‘Disinformation’, as used in military intelligenceordinarily denotes deception through careful presentation of true details; I distinguish ‘factual disinformation’ (close to ‘disinformation’ traditionally understood) from ’emotional disinformation’, which is disinformation that acts on emotional and compassionate judgment as factual disinformation acts on factual judgment. While conceptually distinct, they seem tightly woven in the text, and I do not attempt to separate them.

An Emotional Plea

One distinguishing feature of Keener’s introduction is that it closes off straightforward rebuttal. Unlike O’Brien, he tries to establish not only the content of debate but the terms of debate itself, and once Keener has established the terms of debate, it is difficult or impossible to argue the opposing view from within those terms. Rebuttal is possible, of course, but here it would seem to require pushing the discussion back one notch in the meta-level hierarchy and arguing at much greater length. O’Brien seems more than fair in his style of argument; Keener loads the dice before his reader knows what is going on.

One passage is worth citing for close study [7]:

There are issues where most Biblically conservative Christians, including myself, disagree with prominent elements of the feminist movement… But there are other concerns which nearly all Christians, including myself, and nearly the whole women’s movement plainly share….

[Approximately two pages of alarming claims and statistics, including:] …Although “bride-burning” is now illegal in India, it still happens frequently; a bride whose dowry is insufficient may be burned to death so that her husband can find a new partner. There is no investigation, of course, because it is said that she simply poured cooking oil over herself and set herself on fire accidentally…. A Rhode Island Rape Crisis Center study of 1700 teenagers, cited in a 1990 InterVarsity magazine, reported that 65% of the boys and 47% of the girls in sixth through ninth grades say that a man may force a woman to have sex with him if they’ve been dating for more than six months…. Wife-beating seems to have been a well-established practice in many patriarchal families of the 1800’s….

But while some Christians may once have been content to cite proof-texts about women’s subordination to justify ignoring this sort of oppression, virtually all of us would today recognise that oppression and exploitation of any sort are sinful violations of Jesus’s commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves and to love fellow-Christians as Christ loved us. [Keener goes on to later conclude that we must choose between a feminist conception of equality and an un-Christian version of subordination.]

The text starts by presenting Keener as Biblically conservative, moves to a heart-wrenching list of wrongs against women, implicitly conflates nonfeminist Christians with those who condone rape and murder, and presents a choice crystallising the fallacy of the excluded middle that had been lurking in prior words. It has more than one attribute of emotional disinformation.

Keener both identifies himself as Biblically conservative and says that, among some Christians, the egalitarian position is the conservative one (contrast chapter 4, where ‘conservative’ means a reactionary misogynist). Why? People are more likely to listen to someone who is perceivedly of the same camp, and falsely claiming membership in your target’s camp is a tool of deceptive persuasion.

The recitation of statistics is interesting for several reasons.

On a strictly logical level, it is a non sequitur. It has no direct logical bearing on either camp; even its rhetorical position assumes that conservative, as well as liberal, members of his audience believe that rape and murder are atrocities. This is a logical non sequitur, chosen for its emotional force and what impact that emotional recoil will have on susceptibility. The trusting reader will recoil from the oppression listed and be less guarded when Keener provides his way to oppose such oppression. The natural response to such a revolting account is to say, ‘I’m not that! I’m the opposite!’ and embrace what is offered when the fallacy of the excluded middle is made explicit, in the choice Keener later presents.

Once a presentation of injustice has aroused compassion to indignation, most people do not use their full critical faculties: they want to right a wrong, not sit and analyse. This means that a powerful account of injustice (with your claims presented as a way to fight the injustice) is a powerful way to get people to accept claims that would be rejected if presented on their logical merits. Keener’s ‘of course’ is particularly significant; he builds the reader’s sense of outrage by adding ‘of course’ with a (carefully studied but) seemingly casual manner. It is not obvious to a Western reader that a bride’s murder would be left uninvestigated; adding ‘of course’ gives nothing to Keener’s logical case but adds significantly to the emotional effect Keener seeks, more effectively and more manipulatively than were he to visibly write those words from outrage.

The sentence about proof-texts and loving one’s neighbour is of particular interest. On a logical level, it is restrained and cannot really be attacked. The persuasive and emotional force—distinct from what is logically present—is closer to, ‘Accepting those proof-texts is equivalent to supporting such oppression; following the Law of Love contradicts both.’

This is one instance of a broader phenomenon: a gap between what the author entails and implicates. Both ‘entail’ and ‘implicate’ are similar in meaning to ‘imply’, but illustrate opposite sides of a distinction. What a text entails is what is implied by the text in a strictly logical sense; what a text implicates is what is implied in the sense of what it leads the reader to believe. What is implicated includes what is entailed, and may often include other things. The entailed content of ‘But while some Christians…’ is modest and does not particularly advance a discussion of egalitarianism. The implicated content is much more significant; it takes a logically tight reading to recognise that the text does not entail a conflation claiming that nonfeminist Christians condone rape and murder. The text implicates much more than it entails, and I believe that this combination of restricted entailment with far-reaching implication is a valuable cue. It can be highly informative to read a text with an eye to the gap between what is entailed and what is implicated. The gap between entailment and implicature seemed noticeably more pronounced in Keener than in yielding materials I have read, including O’Brien. Another example of a gap between entailment and implicature is found close[8], ‘…the secular generalization that Christians (both men and women) who respect the Bible oppose women’s rights is an inaccurate caricature of these Christians’ admits a similar analysis: the entailment is almost unassailable, while the implicature establishes in the reader’s mind that the conservative position is excisable from respect for the Bible, and that the nonfeminist position denies something basic to women that they should have. The term ‘women’s rights’ is by entailment the sort of thing one would not want to oppose, and by implicature a shorthand for ‘women’s rights as understood and interpreted along feminist lines’. As well as showing a significant difference between entailment and implicature, this provides an example of a text which closes off the most obvious means of rebuttal, another rhetorical trait which may be produced by the same mindset as produces unyielding analysis.

What is left out of the cited text is also significant. The statistics given are incomplete (they focus on profound ways in which women suffer so the reader will not think of profound ways in which men suffer) but as far as describing principles to discriminate yielding versus unyielding analysis, this seems to be privileged information. I don’t see a way to let a reader compare the text as if there were a complementary account written in the margin. Also, a careful reading of the text may reveal a Biblical nonfeminist position as the middle fallaciously excluded earlier, in which sexual distinction exists on some basis other than violence. All texts we are interested in—yielding or unyielding—must stop somewhere, but it is possible to exclude data that should have been included and try to conceal its absence. Lacunae that seem to have been chosen for persuasion rather than limitation of scope may signal unyielding analysis.

Further Examples

In a discussion[9] of the haustafel’s (Ephesians 5:21 and following[10] injunction that the husband love his wife based on Christ’s love for the Church, Keener says, ‘Indeed, Christ’s love is explicitly defined in this passage in terms of self-sacrificial service, not in terms of his authority.’ The passage does not mention that self-sacrificial service is a defining feature of Christ’s model of authority, and in these pages the impression is created that the belief in servant love is a Biblical Egalitarian distinctive, so that the reader might be surprised to find the conservative O’Brien saying[11]:

…Paul does not here, or anywhere else for that matter, exhort husbands to rule over their wives. They are nowhere told, ‘Exercise your headship!’ Instead, they are urged repeatedly to love their wives (vv. 25, 28, and 33). This will involve each husband showing unceasing care and loving service for his wife’s entire well-being…

O’Brien is emphatic that husbands must love their wives; examples could easily be multiplied. Keener argues for loving servanthood as if it were a claim which his opponents rejected. The trusting reader will believe that nonfeminists believe in submission and egalitarians alone recognise that Paul calls husbands to servant love. I believe that this selective fact-telling is one of the more foundational indicators: some factual claims will be out of a given reader’s competence to evaluate, but so far as a reader can evaluate whether a fair picture is presented, the presence or absence of selective fact-telling may help.

Chapter 4 is interesting in that there are several thoughts that are very effectively conveyed without being explicitly stated. The account of ‘conservatives’ (i.e. misogynistic reactionaries) is never explicitly stated to apply to Christians who disagree with Keener, but works in a similar fashion (and for similar reasons) to the ‘Green Book’ which introduces the first major argument in The Abolition of Man.[12] By the same mechanism as the Green Book leads the reader to believe that claims about the outer world are in fact only claims about ourselves, not the slightest obstacle is placed to the reader believing that Keener exposes the true nature of ‘conservatism’, and that the picture of Graeco-Roman conservatism portrayed is a picture of conservatism, period, as true of conservatism today as ever.

A smaller signal may be found in that Keener investigates inconvenient verses in a way that never occurs for convenient ones. Keener explores the text, meaning, and setting to 5:22-33 in a way that never occurs for 5:21; a careless reader may get the impression that 5:21 doesn’t have a cultural setting.

Drawing on Privileged Information

I would next like to outline a difference between men’s and women’s communication, state what Keener’s Roman conservatives did with this, and state what Keener did with the Roman conservatives. One apparent gender difference in communication is that when a woman makes a claim, it is relatively likely to mean, ‘I am in the process of thinking and here is where I am now,’ while a man’s claim is more likely to mean, ‘I have thought. I have come to a conclusion. Here is my conclusion.’ Without mentioning caveats, there is room for considerable friction when men assume that women are stating conclusions and women assume that men are giving the current state of a developing thought. The conservatives described by Keener seem frustrated by this friction; Keener quotes Josephus [13]:

Put not trust in a single witness, but let there be three or at least two, whose evidence shall be accredited by their past lives. From women let no evidence be accepted, because of the levity and temerity of their sex; neither let slaves bear witness, because of the baseness of their soul.

This passage is introduced, “…regards the prohibition of women’s testimony as part of God’s law, based in the moral inferiority inherent in their gender.” The reader is not likely to question whether it’s purely misogyny for a man (frustrated by women apparently showing levity by changing their minds frequently) to find this perceived mutability a real reason why these people should not be relied on as witnesses when someone’s life may be at stake. Keener has been working to portray conservatives as misogynistic. Two pages earlier[14], he tells us,

An early Jewish teacher whose work was undoubtedly known to Paul advised men not to sit among women, because evil comes from them like a moth emerging from clothes. A man’s evil, this teacher went on to complain, is better than a woman’s good, for she brings only shame and reproach.

This, and other examples which could be multiplied, deal with something crystallised on the previous page[15]. Keener writes,

Earlier philosophers were credited with a prayer of gratitude that they were not born women, and a century after Paul a Stoic emperor could differentiate a women’s soul from that of a man.

The moral of this story is that believing in nonphysical differences between men and women is tantamount to misogyny. This is a highly significant claim, given that the questions of women’s ordination and headship in marriage are largely epiphenomenal to the question of whether we are created masculine and feminine at every level of our being, or ontologically neuter spirits in reproductively differentiated bodies. Keener produces a conclusion (i.e. that the human spirit is neuter) without ever stating it or drawing the reader to consciously consider whether this claim should be believed. In a text that is consistently polite, the opposing view is not merely negated but vilified: to hold this view (it is portrayed) is tantamount to taking a view of women which is extraordinarily reprehensible. Either of these traits may signal unyielding analysis; I believe the combination is particularly significant.

Tacit and Overt Communication

Although the full import of tacit versus overt communication is well beyond my competency to address, I would like to suggest something that merits further study.[16] Keener seemed, to a significant degree, to:

  • Tacitly convey most of his important points, without stating them explicitly.
  • Present claims so the opposing view is never considered.
  • Build up background assumptions which will produce the desired conclusions, more than give explicit arguments.
  • Work by manipulating background assumptions, often provided by the reader’s culture.

As an example of this kind of tacit communication, I would indicate two myths worked with in the introduction and subsequently implied. By ‘myth’ I do not specifically mean ‘widespread misconception’, but am using a semiotic term comparable in meaning to ‘paradigm’: ‘[M]yths act as scanning devices of a society’s ‘possibles‘ and ‘pensables [17]. The two myths are:

    • Men are powerful and violent aggressors, whilst women are powerless and innocent victims. The alarming claims and statistics[18] mention aggression against men only in the most incidental fashion.
    • The accurate spokesperson for women’s interests is the feminist movement. Keener diminishes this myth’s force by disclaiming support for abortion (and presenting a pro-choice stance as separable from other feminist claims), but (even when decrying prenatal discrimination in sex-selective abortion[19]) Keener refers to the feminist movement interchangeably as ‘the feminist movement’[20] and ‘the women’s movement’[21], and does not lead the reader to consider that one could speak for women’s interests by contradicting feminism, or question the a priori identification of womens’ interests with the content of feminist claims.As well as the emotional disinformation explored in many of the examples above, there are several points where the nature of the argument is of interest. Five argument-like features are explored:
      • Verses which help our position are principles that apply across all time; verses which contradict our position were written to address specific issues in a specific historical context.
      • X had beneficial effect Y; X was therefore purely instrumental to Y, and we may remove X if we no longer require X as an instrument to Y.
      • The absolute position taken in this passage addresses a specific historical idiosyncrasy, but the relative difference between this passage and its surroundings is a timeless principle across all times.
      • If X resonates with a passage’s cultural context, then X need not be seen as part of the Bible’s revelation.
      • We draw the lines of equivalence in the following manner…

      ‘Verses which help our position are principles that apply across all time; verses which contradict our position were written to address specific issues in a specific historical context’ is less an argument than an emergent property. It’s not argued; the text just turns out that way. Keener gives a diplomatically stated reason why Paul wrote the parts of 5:22-6:9 he focuses on: ‘Paul was very smart.’[22] The subsequent argument states that Paul wrote in a context where Christians behaving conservatively would diminish he perceived threat to social conservatives. Keener writes[23], ‘Paul is responding to a specific cultural issue for the sake of the Gospel, and his words should not be taken at face value in all cultures.’ There is a fallacy which seems to be behind this argument in Keener: being timeless principles and being historically prompted are non-overlapping categories, so finding a historical prompt suffices to demonstrate that material in question does not display a timeless principle.’The absolute position taken in this passage addresses a specific historical idiosyncrasy, but the relative difference between this passage and its surroundings is a timeless principle across all times.’ A text embodies both an absolute position in se, and a relative difference by how it is similar to and different from its surrounding cultural mainstream. 5:22-33 requires submission of wives and love of husbands; that absolute position can be understood with little study of context, while the relative difference showed both a continuity with Aristotelian haustafels and a difference by according women a high place that was unusual in its setting. The direction of Keener’s argument is to say explicitly[25] that the verses should not be taken at face value, and to implicitly clarify that the absolute position should not be taken at face value, but part of the relative position, namely the sense in which Paul was much more feminist-like than his setting (‘[A quote from Plutarch] is one of the most “progressive” social models in Paul’s day… It is most natural to read Paul as making a much more radical statement than Plutarch, both because of what Paul says and because of what he does not say,’[26]) is a timeless principle that should apply in our day as well as Paul’s. Without proper explanation of why the relative difference should be seen as absolute, given that the absolute position is idiosyncratic, the impression is strongly conveyed that respecting Paul’s spirit means transposing his absolute position so that a similar relative difference exists with relation to our setting.’We draw equivalences in the following manner…’ This is not a single argument so much as an attribute of arguments; I believe that what is presented as equivalent can be significant. In the autobiographical comments in the introduction, Keener writes[27]:What Keener has been arguing is not just the relevance of culture but the implicit necessity of a piecemeal hermeneutic. The implication (beyond an excluded middle) is that using culture to argue a piecemeal, feminist modification to Paul is the same sort of thing as not literally practicing the holy kiss.[28] The sixth of seven chapters, after emotionally railing against slavery, argues that retaining the institution of marriage while excising one dimension is the same sort of thing as abolishing the institution of slavery; ‘The Obedience of Children: A Better Model?’[29] explicitly rejects the claim that marriage is more like parenthood than owning slaves. While no comparison is perfect, I believe that these are examples of comparisons where it is illuminating to see what the author portrays as equivalent.In my own experience at least, this kind of argument is not purely the idiosyncrasy of one book. The idea this thesis is based on occurred to me after certain kinds of arguments recurred. Certain dark patterns, or anti-patterns, came up in different contexts like a broken record that kept on making its sound. I’m not sure how many times I had seen instances of ‘X had beneficial effect Y; X was therefore purely instrumental to Y, and we may remove X if we no longer require X as an instrument to Y,’ but I did not first meet that argument in Keener. These arguments represent fallacies of a more specialised nature than post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“after the fact, therefore because of the fact”) or argumentum ad ignorantiam (“appeal to ignorance”). I believe that they allow a persuasive, rational-seeming argument of a conclusion not yet justified on logical terms. The experience that led to the formation of my thesis was partly from repeatedly encountering such fallacies in surprising cultural find arguments.I have tried to provide a pilot study identifying indicators of unyielding analysis. These indicators are not logically tied in the sense of ‘Here’s something which, on logical terms, can only indicate unyielding analysis.’ The unyielding analysis I have met, before and in Keener, has been constructed with enough care to logic that I don’t start by looking at logic. There are other things which are not of logical necessity required by unyielding analysis, but which seem to be produced by the same mindset. I have encountered these things both in the chosen text and in repeated previous experiences which first set me thinking along these lines.It is unfortunate that my control text made little use of emotion. I believe my case study would have been better rounded, had I been able to contrast emotion subverting logic in Keener with emotion complementing logic in the control text. As it is, the case study lends itself to an unfortunate reading of “logic is good and emotion is bad”, and gives the impression that I consider the bounds of legitimate persuasion to simply be those of logic.

      Directions for Further Inquiry

      There were other indicators which I believe could be documented from this text with greater inquiry, but which I have not investigated due to constraints. Among these may be mentioned:

      • Misrepresentation of material. Recognising this would seem to require privileged information, and work better for an area where the reader knows something rather than nothing, but I believe that a reader who knows part of the covered domain stands to benefit from seeing if it is covered fairly.
      • Doing more than a text presents itself as doing. A certain kind of deceit, in which the speaker works hard to preserve literal truth, has a complex quality caused by more going on than is presented. I believe an exploration of this quality, and its tie to unyielding analysis, may be fruitful.
      • Shared attributes with a test case. A small and distinctive minority of cases qualify to become test cases in American legal practice; they possess a distinct emotional signature, and portions of Keener’s argument (i.e. ‘Would [Paul] have ignored her personal needs in favour of the church’s witness?’[31]) are reminiscent in both argument and emotional appeal of test cases.
      • An Amusement Park Ride with a Spellbinding Showman. Especially in their introductions, O’Brien seems to go out of his way to let the reader know the full background to the debate; Keener seems more like a fascinating showman who directs the reader’s attention to certain things and away from others; knowing the other side to statistics cited[32]—or even knowing that there is another side—destroys the effect. A careful description of this difference in rhetoric may be helpful, and I believe may be tied to disinformation in that there is a difference in working style; yielding persuasion suffers far less from the reader knowing the other side than does unyielding persuasion.Lastly, I would suggest that a study of sharpening and leveling would be fruitful.[34] ‘Sharpening’ and ‘leveling’ refer to a phenomenon where people remembering a text tend to sharpen its main points while leveling out attenuating factors. For many texts, sharpening and leveling are an unintended effect of their publication, while Keener seems at times to write to produce a specific result after sharpening and leveling have taken effect. What he writes in itself is more carefully restrained than what a reader would walk away thinking, and the latter appears to be closer to what Keener wants to persuade the reader of. Combining narrow entailment with broad implicature is a way for an author to write a text that creates a strong impression (sharpening and leveling produce an impression from what is implicated more than what is entailed) while being relatively immune to direct criticism: when a critic rereads a text closely, it turns out that the author didn’t really say the questionable things the critic remembers the author to have said.[1] I.e. the ‘Gang of Four’: Gamma, Erich; Helm, Richard; Johnson, Ralph; Vlissides, John, Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1994.[4] Peabody: Hendrickson, 1992.[7] Ibid., pp. 6-9; compare almost any of O’Brien pp. 4-47.[10] A haustafel is a household code such as the one found in Ephesians; for my purposes, the Ephesians haustafel stretches from 5:21 to 6:9.[13] Keener, p. 163; O’Brien in pp. 405-438 does not cite a non-Biblical primary source likely to be similarly repellent, and portrays opposing secondary sources as mistaken without setting them in a disturbing light, i.e. in footnote 211, page 413.[16] My attempts to find material discussing how these things work, academic or popular, have had mixed success. If I were to write a thesis around this issue, I would initially explore works such as Michael I. Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958, and anthropological treatments of the high-context/low-context and direct/indirect axes of human communication (which suggest relevant lines of inquiry). C.S. Lewis’s account of the Un-man’s dialogue with the Lady in Perelandra (chapters 8-11, pp. 274-311 in Out of the Silent Planet / Perelandra, Surrey: Voyager Classics, 1938 / 1943), seems to represent a very perceptive grappling with the issue of tacit communication in relation to deceit.[19] Ibid., p. 7.[22] Ibid., p. 141. Contrast O’Brien’s comments on 6:5-9 in 447-456, seemingly the most obvious place to portray at least some of the text as parochial; O’Brien disclaims that Paul was making any social comment on slavery (p. 448), but unpacks the verses without obviously approaching the text from the same mindset as Keener.[25] Keener, p. 170.[28] Remember that Keener is an American. The suggestion he makes is more significant in U.S. than English culture. U.S. culture has a place for giving kisses to one’s romantic partner, to family, and to small children, but not ordinarily to friends. Because of this, culture shock affects almost any attempt to consider ecclesiastical usage. ‘Greet one another with a holy kiss.’ serves in U.S. Evangelical conversation as the standard example of a New Testament injunction which cannot be taken seriously as a commandment to follow. It seem to be often assumed as an example of cultural noise in the Bible.[31] Keener, p. 148.[34] Comments from Asher Koriat, Morris Goldsmith, and Ainat Pansky in ‘Toward a Psychology of Memory Accuracy (in the 2000 Annual Review of Psychology as seen in 2003 at http://www.findarticles.com/cf_0/m0961/2000_Annual/61855635/p7/article.jhtml?term=) provide a summary, with footnotes, suggesting the basic psychological mechanism. An accessible treatment of a related, if not identical, application to what I suggest here is found on pp. 91-94 in Thomas Gilovich’s How We Know What Isn’t So, New York: The Free Press, 1993.
    • [33] I.e. the ‘Gang of Four’: Gamma, Erich; Helm, Richard; Johnson, Ralph; Vlissides, John, Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1994.
    • [32] Ibid. pp. 7-8.
    • [30] Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.
    • [29] Keener, pp. 186-188; contrast O’Brien, pp. 409-438, where he elaborates the text’s analogy with Christ and the Church as a model for understanding marriage, rather than comparing to slavery (which Keener not only does but works to give the reader a reservoir of anger at slavery which may transfer when he argues that marital submission is like slavery).
    • [27] Ibid., p. 4; contrast the series preface before O’Brien: ‘God stands over against us; we do not stand in judgment of him. When God speaks to us through his Word, those who profess to know him must respond in an appropriate way…’ (page viii).
    • [26] Ibid., p. 170.
    • [24] Ibid., pp. 174-8. O’Brien covers some of the same basic facts without obviously presenting argument in this vein (pp. 405-409).
    • [23] Keener, p. 170.
    • [21] Ibid., p. 9.
    • [20] Ibid., p. 6.
    • [18] Keener, pp. 7-9.
    • [17] Maranda, Pierre, ‘Elusive Semiosis’, The Semiotic Review of Books, Volume 3, Issue 1, seen in 2003 at http://www.bdk.rug.nl/onderzoek/castor/srb/srb/elusive.html.
    • [15] Ibid., p. 160.
    • [14] Keener, p. 161.
    • [12] Lewis, C.S., chapter 1, pp. 1-26, San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1943, 2001.
    • [11] O’Brien, p. 419.
    • [9] Ibid., p. 167.
    • [8] Keener, p. 9.
    • [6] Keener, pp. 7-9.
    • [5] Rev. 6:8, RSV.
    • [3] Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 1999.
    • [2] Leicester: Apollos, 1999.
    • Footnotes
    • More broadly, I believe there is room for inquiry into the relation between this use of patterns and that in other disciplines. The application I have made is not a straight transposition; in architecture and computer science patterns are a tool to help people communicate about best practices to follow, not identify questionable practice to criticise as I have done here. What becomes of the Quality Without a Name may be interesting. This thesis only suggests two patterns; GoF[33] describes twenty-three computer programming patterns broken into three groups, so that they provide a taxonomy of recurring solutions and not merely a list. A taxonomy of Biblical studies patterns could be a valuable achievement.
  • On a broader scale, it is my hope that this may serve not only as a pilot study regarding unyielding analysis but a tentative introduction of a modified concept of ‘pattern’, or rather ‘dark pattern’ or ‘anti-pattern’ in theology. The concept of pattern was introduced by the architect Christopher Alexander and is sufficiently flexible to be recognised as powerful in computer science. I believe there are other patterns that can be helpful, and I would suggest that books like Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building[30] are accessible to people in a number of disciplines.
  • At a fairly basic level, the case study is a study of a cultural dimension of communication. I believe that portions of this pilot study may be deepened by the insights of scholars from humanities which study human culture and communication. I believe that some of my remarks would be improved by a serious attempt to connect them with high-context and low-context communication as studied in anthropology. If I am doing a pilot study that cannot provide much of any firm answers, I do hope to suggest fruitful lines of inquiry and identify deep questions which for which interdisciplinary study could be quite fruitful.
  • Conclusion
  • In some cases, the argument types I have described are not things which must be wrong, but things which lack justification. The claim that an absolute position is parochial but the relative difference is timeless is not a claim I consider to be unjustifiable, but it is a claim which I believe requires justification, a justification which is not necessarily provided.
  • “But it’s part of the Bible!” I protested. “If you throw this part out, you have to throw everything else out, too.” I cannot recall anyone having a good response to my objection, but even as a freshman I knew very well that if I were consistent in my stance against using culture to interpret the Bible, I would have to advocate women’s head coverings in church, the practice of holy kisses, and parentally arranged marriages.
  • ‘If X resonates with a passage’s cultural context, then X need not be seen as part of the Bible’s revelation.’ This is often interwoven with the previous two arguments. Apart from showing a feminist-like relative difference, Keener works to establish that Paul used a haustafel in a way that reduced Christianity’s perceived threat to conservatives. This is presented as establishing that therefore wives are not divinely commanded to submit.
  • ‘X had beneficial effect Y; X was therefore purely instrumental to Y, and we may remove X if we no longer require X as an instrument to Y.’ Keener argues[24] that the haustafel mitigated prejudice against Christianity, which is presented as a reason why we need not observe the haustafel if we do not perceive need for that apologetic concern.
  • Argument Structure