Meat

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I was sitting at a table with my classmates, and there was one part of the conversation in particular that stuck in my mind. One of my classmates was a vegan, and my professor, who was Orthodox but usually was not as strict as some people are observing Orthodox fasts, said that he was challenged by that position. He talked about Orthodox monasticism, which usually avoids meat, and its implication that meat is not necessary. I wanted to contribute to that discussion, but my sense was that that wasn’t quite the time to speak. When I explored it after that meal, it seemed more and more to be something that was part of a deep web, connected to other things.

What is Theophany? And what does it have to do with meat?

When I became Orthodox, one of the biggest pieces of advice the priest who received me (my spiritual father) gave me was to take five or ten years to connect with the liturgical rhythm. Now in the Orthodox Church advice from spiritual fathers is like a doctor’s prescription in that what is given to one person may not be good at all for another: like a prescription given by a doctor, it is given to one person for that specific person’s needs, and should not normally be seen as universal advice that should be good for everyone. However, that doesn’t mean that advice is perversely designed to be useless to everyone else. I believe this was good pastoral advice not because of something ultimately idiosyncratic about me—something true of me but no one else—but because of something I share with a lot of other people, especially other Westerners.

In the Orthodox Church, there are days, weeks, and years as in the West, but what they mean is different. In some respects the similarity is deceptive. The biggest difference is less a matter of linear vs. cyclical time, as that in the West time is like money: people will say, “Time is money,” and if it is a metaphor, it is none the less a metaphor that captures people’s outlook very well. Time is like a scarce commodity; it’s something you use to get things done, and you can not have enough, and run out of time. Language of “saving time” like one would save resources is because the way people treat time is very close to how one would treat a commercial resource that you use to get things done. This may be deeply rooted in some Orthodox, especially Western members of the Orthodox, but instead of time being like a limited supply of money, time is like a kaleidoscope turning. There are different colors—different basic qualities held in place by worship, prayer at home, fasting from certain foods, feasting, commemorating different saints and Biblical events, and being mindful of different liturgical seasons—and they combine in cycles of day, week, and year, given different shades as people grow. Again, this is much less like “Time is money.” than “Time is the flow of colors in a kaleidoscope.”

One of those seasons is called “Theophany,” and it is defined by the third most important feast in the year. I am writing in that season, and it seems an appropriate enough season to write this piece. It fits Theophany.

“Theophany” means “the manifestation of God.” That word does not refer to icons or animals. But the way that God was manifest in Theophany has every relevance to icons and animals.

Theophany is the celebration of the Lord Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan, and at one point this was not celebrated from what we now celebrate in Christmas. At that baptism, the Father spoke from Heaven and said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” the Son was baptized, and the Spirit appeared in the form of a dove. The Trinity was made manifest, but more to the point, the Trinity of God was made manifest to and through material Creation.

The Fathers have never drawn a very sharp line between Christ the Savior of men and Christ the Savior of the whole creation. This isn’t something the Fathers added to the Bible: the Son of God has entered into his creation so completely that the Bible itself says that Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.”

When Christ was baptized in water, he blessed the whole creation. Yes, he set a precedent for his followers. I wouldn’t want to diminish that. But if you draw the line and say the story is relevant to our being baptized but nothing more, you have cut off its fundamental relevance to the whole Creation. The Orthodox liturgy never forgets the rest of the created order, and the liturgy for Theophany crystallizes this in the service for the blessing of the water:

Great art thou, O Lord, and wonderful are thy works, and no word doeth justice to the praise of thy wonders; for by thy will thou didst bring out all things from nonexistence into existence; and by thy might thou dost control creation, and by thy providence thou dost govern the world. Thou it is who didst organize creation from the four elements, and crowned the cycle of the year with four seasons. Before thee tremble supersensual powers; thee the sun praiseth, the moon worshippeth, the stars submit to thee, the light obeyeth, the tempests tremble, the springs worship thee. Thou didst spread out the heaven like a tent; thou didst establish the earth on the waters. Thou didst surround the sea with sand. Thou didst pour out the air for breathing. Thee do the angelic hosts serve; thee the ranks of the archangels do worship, the many-eyed cherubim, the six-winged seraphim, as they stand in thy presence and fly about thee, hiding with fear from thine unapproachable glory…

And shortly the water is blessed, opening a season of blessing in which people’s houses are blessed, icons are blessed, people are blessed, and so on. To be human is to be created for worship, but it is not only humans; every material creature and every spiritual creature (the “supersensual powers”, the “many-eyed cherubim”, and other figures in the liturgy quoted above) are not only created to worship but have a place in what could be called a united organism.

People today are seeking a harmony between man and nature, and some people may wonder if Orthodoxy has a basis for such a harmony. The answer is a yes and no. Let me explain.

If we ask a different question, “What would harmony between humans and technology be? What would a society look like?” then there might be an image of people caring for machines, adapting themselves to them, and so on and so forth. And that image, or that projection, would lead to a deceptive image among societies today. If we are talking about the kind of technology in the first world today, then the first world today not only is better attuned with technology than the second or third world, but has done something with technology that is simply without parallel in the first 99.999% (literally) of the time humans have been around. Although some other nations like Japan may have a slight edge over my native USA, I’m going to focus on the USA for the simple reason that I know it better.

In the USA, which has something about technology that exceeds what has been done in the same vein in the first 99.999% of the time humans have been around, there are people who develop technology and are carefully attuned to it. And the culture is optimized to support technology in a way that I didn’t appreciate until I lived in the second world. You may be able to count on your fingers the number of societies that have ever managed, in the entire history and prehistory of the human race, to be more attuned to technology. And yet the society is not what one would imagine if one tried to imagine a society in harmony with technology.

This is a society with a minority current making Luddite arguments about why computers are bad (and to me the arguments have more weight than some might suspect). There are also people who have no academic axe to grind about the sociological effects of video games, but hate learning new programs. The predominant computer operating system is the most insecure operating system, the one that most exposes its users to viruses and worms—better operating systems are available, at very least from a security and privacy perspective, for free in some cases, but the industry standard is the one that leaves its users most vulnerable to malicious software. Furthermore, people do not hold technology as objects of reverence, or at least most people don’t. Not only is it not a big deal to dispose of no-longer-wanted technology, but “planned obsolescence” means that technology is made to be thrown away. When technology is broken, it will probably be replaced instead of being repaired. You can be very educated and know very little about technology. And the list goes on.

Now I ask: Is this attunement with technology? And the answer is “Yes,” but it is the kind of attunement seen in real society (perhaps more perfectly in Japan and other places), not what one would imagine as “harmony with technology.” The difference between the two is like the difference between romantic relationships—the kind you have with another flesh-and-blood human who has things that your imagination didn’t put there—and romantic fantasies. In fact people don’t think in terms of “harmony with technology;” to ask if American culture lives in harmony with technology is a question few Americans would ask.

Does Orthodoxy have a key to harmony with nature? Let me give one clue. No single technology—not SUVs, not environmentally incorrect inks, not styrofoam—dictates a heavy environmental footprint. Even if there were no soy inks, the printer in itself need not dictate environmental damage. What dictates environmental damage is waste. And Orthodoxy never tells a society what technologies it may and may not use—when someone ran an anti-SUV advertisement asking, “What would Jesus drive?” Orthodoxy may well agree with the archaeologist who in essence said, “Speaking as someone who’s done excavations in the Holy Land’s rugged terrain, you basically need an SUV, and Jesus with his twelve disciples would have driven a Hummer.” (This does not mean that we all need Hummers. I get rides from people but don’t own a car myself.) Even if Orthodoxy does not give a list of what technologies its people can’t use, Orthodoxy does join voices with many other Christians in saying that part of the walk of virtue is living simply, meaning using what you need but being willing to ask “Do we need what we can afford?” instead of just “Can we afford what we need?” This simplicity is not lived consistently in the first world, but the classical virtue of living simply, formulated at a time when people simply were not thinking in environmentalist terms, has implications for appropriate stewardship of the earth. Living simply has usually been conceived as something that deals with rich and poor—almost all people in the first world who have a home would be considered rich—but it is part of a right ordering that will rightly orient people and society to the material world.

But there is another side to the issue. In the Western way of looking at it, there is a fundamental opposition between harmony (shaded by equality) and domination (shaded by inequality). Harmony, by definition, does not include domination. But the way the Eastern Church approaches it fits neither into the Western boundaries of harmony nor the Western boundaries of domination. The link between man and nature needs harmony, but it is incomplete if it cannot include domination and even destruction. The PETA position, admittedly extreme for people who have animal rights sympathies, is that a duck is a rat is a goat is a boy. To them, meat is murder, not just as a way of exaggerating something deep, but in a literal sense. And I cannot agree with that. If I could kill a goat and save a girl, I would do so. And beyond that, I eat meat, more than most people (at least before low-carb diets came in vogue, and perhaps after).

The smock

When I was a boy, my art teacher told the class to get smocks, and my father gave me an unwanted shirt—but he would have given me his best shirt if I needed it. I used it and it kept me from getting clay and paint on my other clothing. (In other words, I destroyed it.) That wasn’t the only thing of my parents’ that I destroyed. I destroyed the meals my mother cooked for me (usually by eating them and throwing away as little as possible—you wouldn’t want them when I was done). I destroyed things that weren’t working by taking them apart to see what was inside. I destroyed clothing that my mother brought for me, usually by wearing it out. If my parents had back every penny they spent on something that I destroyed, they would have a good deal more money.

However, my parents did not raise me to be a destructive man. The smock is an example of justified destruction. The fact that my father gave me one of his shirts to destroy as a smock does not mean that it didn’t matter if I destroyed his shirts. He would have been quite bothered if I had rubbed red clay onto all of his shirts. Quite a lot of the destruction I did was appropriate. It was justified destruction within a context, and I believe it illustrates what it means to say both that destruction can be permissible, and that destruction matters. To speak of justified destruction is both to say that destruction can be justified and that justification needs to be justified: it is acceptable to destroy a dress shirt when a smock is needed, but destroying a dress shirt needs to be justified, and is not appropriate when it is not justified.

The concept of “raw materials” applied to the natural world isn’t a very Orthodox concept, for much the same reason that it would seem strange to interpret our house as merely a bunch of raw materials for me to destroy at will. The examples above notwithstanding, my parents did not want me to be destructive, and the fact that I was permitted to destroy things was not the central truth of the matter. It would be much closer to the truth to say that I was in that home to grow into a Christian and a man, and be a member of that family. There was also a footnote that said I could destroy some things in some circumstances. But even the things which I was permitted to destroy were not “raw material”. A shirt has value in itself, as a shirt, even if it is used as a smock.

The problem with considering the items in my parents’ house is raw material is that they have both status and value independently of what I might get out of destroying them. It might matter that I would benefit from destroying the shirt by using it as a smock, but the heart of the matter is that “potential for making a smock” is neither the only status nor the only value of a dress shirt.

An icon, a picture painted to help make spiritual realities manifest, has value as the emblem of a view of the Creation where science and materialism do not tell the whole story, where matter has spiritual qualities above the legitimate observation of scientists, and where saying “Nature is simply what science describes” is as fundamentally erroneous as saying “Your value as a human being is simply what you get when you subtract your financial liabilities from your assets.” If an icon is spiritual, if it is part of God manifesting himself through matter and restoring matter to his circle of blessing, then there is something inadequate if the only meaning to “matter” is “what science describes.” Matter is a part of the treasurehouse of God, and the icon is spiritual not as an exception to inert matter and raw material, but as the crystallization of something at the heart of Creation. Seeing the natural world as raw material is almost as strange from an Orthodox perspective as seeing people in terms of their financial net worth. It’s the same kind of error.

Of the possessions in my parents’ house, not are equal, and it makes a difference whether I am destroying a plastic cup or a landscape painted by my mother. In God’s own house with his treasures, not all are of equal value. There are some of these treasures that exist, in their way reflecting a God who is existence itself: rocks, for instance. There are some possessions which exist in a deeper sense, having an existence that is alive, a reflection of a God who is not only Being itself but Life itself. Then, beyond these oaks and roses, there are treasures which exist and even live in a way that moves: gazelles and badgers. As the pinnacle of material creation and the microcosm that brings together the material and the spiritual, are creatures that exist, live, and move in out of rationality—on a richer and more interesting understanding of “rationality” than most people would associate with the word today. That would be the realm of men. Lastly, there are bodiless rational spirits. rank on rank of angels.

We can destroy treasures that exist, live, and even move, and some people think that in dire circumstances we may destroy the highest of material treasures, the ones that are rational. But that does not mean that it’s all the same to destroy rocks, plants, and animals. Destroying a plant—to make a vegan’s meal, for instance—is more serious than smashing a pebble. (Unfortunately, you can’t live off of a diet of rocks.) Destroying an animal is far more serious, and there are sources which suggest it is more a concession than what we would think of today as a right. You can find people arguing that meat is more of a condition to weakness and medical concerns than something healthy people should need to resort to.

Kosher meat

In Judaism, “kosher” is not only a matter of whether the meat comes from a clean animal like a cow or a sheep or an unclean animal like a pig. It also is a matter of how the animal was slaughtered.

The butcher says a blessing over the animal and then makes a single motion with a knife that has to be sharp, and is specified so that the animal dies as swiftly and painlessly as possible. Its lifeblood is also to be poured out as thoroughly as possible—because the animal’s life belongs to God, not to us, and even if we may kill it, Judaism at least frames acceptable slaughter in a way that shows respect for the animal killed.

If we look at a Jewish shepherd with his flock of sheep, under second temple Judaism, and a contemporary (to him) pagan Greek swineherd with his flock of pigs, they (or at least the Jew) would have seen themselves as complete opposites, at least after taking into account that they both raise a group of animals. There may have been a difference in whether all the animals were being raised for meat, but let’s ignore that for the sake of argument. The Greek swineherd might have found the comparison rather insulting: to Greeks, Jews were these antisocial people who wouldn’t mingle in polite company and for some reason treated one of the most delicious meats (pork) as if it were something revolting and putrid. In other words, Greeks perceived Jews as rather a bit weird, a beer or two short of a six-pack. The Jew, however, would have certainly found the comparison insulting to the extreme: not only was this figure a goy, a heathen dog, but he was raising pigs. Saying that he was like a swineherd is offensive in much the same way it would be offensive to tell a UPS delivery driver who is proud of helping the business world and contributing a little to help the economy run smoothly, that that she is like a gang’s drug runner because they both deliver packages, whether the packages are productive business documents or street drugs. The Jew would have been more offended by the comparison, but for people who raise flocks of animals, the Jew and Greek would have seen themselves as very different.

But let’s compare them to how pigs are raised today, in today’s factory farming. Pigs spend almost their entire lives in tiny cells, with an hour of artificial light a day—the rest of the day being surrounded by darkness—constricted in cells too small for them to turn around, deprived of a herd animal’s normal contact with other animals from its herd, traumatized not only by sounds but by the unending stench of rotting feces. The workers who treat them come down with atrocious respiratory diseases—and they are exposed to the vile air for a few hours a day instead of 24/7 as the pigs are. I don’t believe that feeding animals antibiotics is innately wrong, but with pigs it serves as an inappropriate band-aid for the damage caused by a dungeon—if that is a strong enough word—which is such a toxic environment that feeding the animals constant antibiotics actually makes a marked difference in the number of pigs killed by the life in their dungeon.

If we compare the Jew and the Greek herd-keepers, suddenly they look the same, and some things take on a new significance. Both allowed their herds to graze at least some of the time. Both allowed their animals to have natural contact with other like animals as part of a herd. Both raised their animals in daylight. Both raise their animals in places that gave them not just room to turn around, but room to move about normally. And now I’d like to ask what the Jewish shepherd (at least) would have thought of the factory farming way of raising (in the example above) pigs. Or, if you prefer, a rabbi.

Do you know how when you step on a tack or stub your toe, you feel tremendous pain, immediately, but if you get in a car accident and really need to go to the emergency room, it takes a while for the pain to register? My suspicion is that kosher slaughter techniques leave an animal unconscious and possibly dead before the pain has had time to register. Even if it is not painless slaughter, the specific rules are motivated by a principle that reduces suffering in a timespan of only a few minutes. And non-kosher slaughter, unless people go out of their way to cause suffering, cannot come anywhere near the suffering which factory farming inflicts on pigs. For that matter, it’s not clear how one would go about creating a torment-filled slaughter technique that would come anywhere near the lifelong suffering animals experience in factory farming. My suspicion is that people who are criminally convicted of cruelty to animals (at least in the U.S.) cause nowhere near the suffering before the animal is dead that factory farms do. To the best of my knowledge, Orthodox Judaism has not made rules about how an animal must be treated for its entire life to provide kosher meat, but if the rules were being articulated today, I suspect that the rules would recognize that lifelong torment is more of a problem than failing to kill an animal quickly and with a minimum of pain (as well as pouring its blood out as a reverent recognition that the life of an animal belongs to the Lord).

Before further discussion about factory farming’s evil side, I would like to explain what it has allowed. Raising animals the traditional way is expensive, requiring a lot of land and a lot of manpower. Factory farming—stacking animal cells in warehouse-like fashion and in general treating animals like mere machines—is a way to automate and mechanize the production of both meat and animal products like eggs and cheese. It is a tremendous way to cut corners, and the result is that things that come from animals are drastically reduced in price, drastically cheaper.

It is difficult, at least in the first world, for people to understand that for most of history people have not been vegetarians but neither did they eat meat every day. There have been a few hunter tribes that had a meat-based diet. For most people whose food came from farms, bread or rice has been the staple food. Meat was for special occasions or a seasoning; eating meat every day would seem strange to most people, like ordering lobster every time you feel like a snack, or drinking Champagne with every meal. Meat, being an expensive thing to produce, was something people didn’t have as the basis for normal meals. If you are an American adult—and you have not made a conscious choice early in your life to drastically reduce or eliminate meat from your diet—then you have almost certainly eaten much more meat than Jesus did. This does not automatically mean that we shouldn’t eat meat ever, or that we should eat meat rarely, but it does suggest that eating meat every day is not really the traditional way of doing things, even if most people were not vegetarians. A lot of people today love lobster and Champagne, but that doesn’t mean it’s normal in my society to have them every day. It might be telling that the “Our Father” Jesus gave doesn’t say, “Give us today our daily meat,” but “Give us today our daily bread.” That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t eat meat, but it seems not to assume, as people sometimes do, that meat is the main food.

Three American rules

I’d like to point out something more about American culture. Where I was growing up, I heard that a restaurant, Dragon West, had been closed down for improper use of domestic animals. For those of you who don’t have X-ray goggles, “improper use of domestic animals” is an opaque bureaucratic euphemism for the fact that they were serving dogs as food. The reason the restaurant was shut down has to do with the fact that eating dogs is culturally offensive to much of American culture, and there is a reason for that.

There’s a rule in America that if you keep a particular type of animal as a pet, you don’t eat that kind of animal’s meat. The rule is not absolute, and part of it is that most kinds of pets (carnivorous cats, for instance) would make poor livestock, and most kinds of livestock (behemothic bovines, for instance) would be hard to keep in a suburban home. And the rule isn’t absolute. Aside from rabbits, people swallow goldfish, although they seem to do that precisely because it crosses a line. But once you acknowledge a jagged border, it’s not just true that we happen not to eat the most common pets; many Americans would find the idea of eating a dog or cat to be nauseating. And it’s deeply seated enough to close down a restaurant.

You can, at some restaurants I’ve been to, order fish head curry. That doesn’t get a place shut down, but it breaks another rule. More specifically, it breaks the rule that meat shouldn’t give obvious clues that it came from an animal. Fish, which look the least like people, can be sold with their heads on. But unless you go out of your way, chickens are sold without head and feathers, and red meat and pork (which are from non-human mammals) is sold with even fewer clues that it’s some of the flesh of a slaughtered animal. Not that a detective couldn’t figure it out, but meat is sold in a form that hides where it came from, and people buying or eating beef would probably be grossed out by having a cow’s severed head nearby. Surely some of this is for economic reasons, but Americans who eat meat tend not to want to be reminded where it came from.

Lastly, people can be disturbed by the idea of eating certain kinds of “gross” things, things that creep and crawl—eating a tarantula or scorpion would be disturbing. (Interestingly, this rule seems to have a clause that says, “except if it came from the sea,” so the tarantula’s watery cousin the crab is fair game, as is the scorpion’s cousin the lobster.) That observation aside, the animals used to evoke horror in movies are generally not used as food.

My point in this is not to say that we all have rules, or think that only Orthodox Jews and Muslims have dietary rules. Even if the last rule has a strange exception, these rules are not random.

A devout Muslim will not eat pork and a devout Hindu will not eat beef, but the reasons are opposite: to the Muslim, a pig is an abomination, while to the Hindu, the god Shiva’s steed is a cow, and it would be an affront to Shiva to kill his steed for food. So we have abstinence out of disrespect and our of respect.

In the last rule I gave, “Thou shalt not eat anything creepy,” is an abstinence out of disrespect: spiders and lizards are dirty things that aren’t clean enough to eat. But neither of the first two rules is like this. The rules against eating animals that could be used as pets, and meat that looks too much like it came from an animal, are not rules of disrespect but rules of “Don’t remind me that an animal was killed for this.” The average suburbanite would rather be fed by meat from a kind of animal he has never interacted with closely—i.e. a cow—than think, “This came from a dog like the one I had growing up.”

This adds some complexity to the picture of “America is a place where people eat lots of meat and that’s that.” It suggests that, even if we eat lots of meat, there is something residual, a reticence that tries not to know that meat comes from slaughtered animals. (That is even without adding any knowledge of what it means for livestock to be raised under factory farming, which in my mind far outweighs the slaughter itself.)

Two things animal rights activists won’t tell you

Not all meat is created equal.

I had a bear of a time learning what specific conditions animals are raised under. Animal rights activists tend to want to treat animals as people, and only tell about what is inhumane, never what is humane, and so they will never tell you that beef cattle are raised under much nicer conditions than pigs. The people involved in factory farming seem not to advertise what they are doing. This makes not the easiest conditions to find out how much cruelty is associated with different things. (Or maybe I was just looking in the wrong places.)

What I was able to find—or the impression I was able to get—makes for a sort of ascending scale of cruelty, moving from least cruel (no more cruel than traditional animal husbandry) to most cruel. This scale isn’t perfect, but it’s the one I use.

Before we get on the scale, there is soy milk (which I’ve found to be available at grocery stores, and the chocolate is easiest to get used to), soy cream cheese, and so on. I still haven’t gotten the hang of liking tofu. I’ve found some other soy substitutes not to taste equivalent, but to taste good enough, and soy is claimed to have a complete protein signature.

At the base of the scale, the purest and most humane end, include ocean caught fish and seafood, and organic and free range anything. Organic food (which goes a little further than free range food—free range means that livestock can move about, free range, instead of being confined to coffinlike cells) can be found if you look for it at some supermarkets, and can be found at yuppie, granola music listening places like Whole Foods, which stacks exclusively organic produce, is pure as the driven snow, and has prompted a nickname of Whole Paycheck.

Next up the list are beef and mutton. Beef cattle do end up in fattening lots where they have little space, but they spend most of their lives growing up on open grazing land, able to move about, see sunlight, and be part of a herd.

Next up are eggs and dairy products. Because of the moral tenor of factory farming, animals can be treated cruelly even if they’re not exactly being raised for their meat, and if you order a cheeseburger, there’s more cruelty in the cheese than in the burger. Dairy cattle live much like pigs, although less of their lives (and therefore less cruelty) goes into producing a gallon of milk than a comparable amount of pork.

Last on the list are chicken, pork, turkey, and (the worst) veal. Many people know veal is cruel; pork and chicken are not much better. Chickens have a space roughly equal to a letter-sized paper folded in half, and farmers melt much of their beaks off (this is called “debeaking” by the farmers and the literature) because the living conditions cause so much fighting that the chickens would kill each other if they had their beaks and could peck like normal chickens would.

That is one of two things the animal rights crowd won’t tell you. There’s one other major thing I found that they don’t advertise.

In the Orthodox tradition, part of the story is fasting, which doesn’t mean abstaining from all foods and drinking only water, but usually means abstaining from some foods. The requirement on paper is to essentially go to a vegan diet (shellfish are allowed; oil and alcohol aren’t) and avoid most meat and animal products. This is more of a measuring stick than a requirement on paper, and some Orthodox bishops are concerned that new converts do not fast strictly. But, among people that observe fasting, most people go at least a notch or two closer than usual to a vegan diet. A little less than half the year has some fast or other, and the fast can be relaxed to some degree while still being observed. There are seasons of fasting, as well as days of the week.

What I realized in relation to fasting is that I hadn’t expected what fasting would really do. Giving up some of my favorite tastes was obvious, and I experienced that. But craving meat and not giving into that craving came up, and I don’t know that I consciously expected that, but it didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was consciousness, or more properly the effect it had on my consciousness.

Fasting quiets sinful habits and makes it easier to fight them. But at the same time, it drains energy and puts your mind in a fog. I have reason to believe that’s not the final effect, that your body responds differently over time, but fasting affects different people somewhat differently, and the effect on me is quite strong.

What I realized, that animal rights activists will not tell you, was that the main difference in giving up meat (temporarily or permanently) is not the taste; it’s not even really the craving, even if you fight a strong craving. It’s consciousness, and when one friend said he was going to cut meat mostly out of his diet as he married his mostly vegetarian fiancée, I strongly urged him to monitor his state of consciousness.

Why I’m glad I can’t eat Splenda

When I eat more than a little Splenda, it makes me sick—nothing life-threatening or anything like that; I don’t need a medical alert bracelet. But Splenda doesn’t agree with me. If I eat a little, nothing happens. If I eat a bit more than that, I feel mildly sick. If I eat a lot, not only will I feel sick but nature will call with a louder-than-usual voice.

It’s a shame, really. Every other artificial sweetener I’ve tried doesn’t taste right; it tastes like something that’s meant to taste like sugar, but fails. Splenda tastes like sugar’s cousin come in for substitute duty, instead of complete strangers dressed up to vaguely resemble sugar. And I’m not the only person who likes the taste.

Actually, I don’t think it’s a shame at all. Perhaps it has its downsides: I suddenly can’t eat most desserts, because at least where I buy desserts it’s hard to find a dessert sweetened with real, honest sugar. If you can’t eat Splenda, you can’t eat most desserts. And perhaps I will have to turn down more than a tiny serving of some hand-cooked desert made by the friend I am visiting. But there’s something to real, honest sugar, and it betrays something about Splenda.

A couple of friends in Kenya sent a newsletter trying to explain to the Western mind that people value a ring of oil as evidence of a stew’s richness, that bread lists its calories as how much energy it provides for hard work, and they underscored that the calorie is a unit of energy. This is a totally different attitude from in the U.S., when calories count as strikes against food.

It is also a healthier attitude, which underscores that food is eaten to nourish the body. Now God, in his generosity, has made it a pleasure as well, but we don’t need the pleasure, and we do need the nutrition (i.e. nourishment).

Splenda represents an effort to sever the link between eating and nourishment. It may be physically healthier to eat one ice cream bar sweetened with Splenda than with sugar, but it is not spiritually healthier, and there may be hidden consequences to the message, “I can eat and eat and not get fat.” Not only is that bad for the spirit, in that it causes you to fall short of the full stature of being human. If you think about it, it may end up being bad for the waistline.

Splenda is, in short, a very attractive invitation to become a moral eunuch.

In contrast to this, I remember a plaque with a picture of a pig, which said, “Eat to live. Don’t live to eat.” It is the same mindset as Richard Foster saying (I think quoting someone), “Hang the fashions. Buy only what you need.” Maybe he was talking about clothes, but it applies to foods too.

A private response

I try to eat animal products and meat, as much as are necessary for me be able to function. Unfortunately, I’ve found that I need a lot to function, partly for medical reasons. When I am receiving hospitality, I eat freely from what is offered to me; when I buy food, I buy a lot of beef, tuna, and chocolate soy milk. I try to get the minimum I need to function, and to take as much as I can from the lowest end of the cruelty scale. (I try. Sometimes I eat more than I need.) I also try to avoid wasting food and really try to avoid wasting meat—if it bothers me to see a pig raised in cruelty so I can eat a pork chop, it would be even worse for that pork chop to be thrown into the trash.

But there’s something wrong with that. I don’t mean that I chose the wrong private response to this dilemma. I think that as far as private responses go, it’s at least tolerable. Perhaps other people have chosen different responses, and maybe it could be better, but the problem is that it is a private response in the first place.

PETA, officially “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals” and labelled by some as “People Eating Tasty Animals,” tend to be the sort of people Rush Limbaugh would have lampooned when he wanted to give the impression that all liberals were crackpots. They made a gruesome TV commercial telling children to run from their fisherman fathers, apparently for much the same reason you’d run from a serial killer. They’ve probably done quite a lot that will prevent moderates and conservatives from taking animal welfare concerns seriously. But there is one area in which they are perfectly rational.

If, as they believe, meat is literally murder, and if, as they believe, imprisoning animals under lifelong conditions of misery is morally equivalent to imprisoning humans under lifelong conditions of misery, then it is entirely inappropriate to say “I’ll privately choose to be a vegan and you can privately eat your meat, and we can disagree without being disagreeable.” Whatever else they may have wrong, what they have right is that society’s default placement for the matter, of private decisions where people exercise their own private judgment on what if any dietary restrictions it may be. If they are completely wrong, and there is nothing wrong with veal, then maybe they have a private right to eat as if their erroneous beliefs are true, but if substantial parts of their claims are true, even the claims I have made, then there are real problems with the way American culture frames it.

I think I’m going to have to leave this approach “depracated without replacement”; I don’t see anything better that could believably replace it.

An animal lover

I’ve been told I’m good with animals. I certainly love pets, other peoples’ as well as my own: when I visit certain friends, I usually have a pet on my lap.

There was one point when a friend was moving into the area, and (for reasons I don’t understand) asked me to stay with her dog, who was afraid of men. (Even though there were women in the group of friends who had come to help her.) At the beginning, it was very clear that the dog was nervous about being at the other end of a leash from me. But after half an hour, the dog’s head was in my lap as I petted him, and when the group came, he was jumping up and down and wanted to meet the men as well as the women in the group. Part of what happened was because I knew how to approach slowly and let an animal get used to me, but part of it was probably something else.

That is probably the most exotic, or at least most impressive, story I can muster about my being good with animals. If I visit friends with pets, I usually ask to see the pets. And I believe my family’s warm atmosphere is part of why our cat is nineteen years old and still catches mice. This is not to say that we love our cat more than one friend, whose dog was hit by a car, or another friend, whose dog died of cancer. But it is to say that she might not have lived nearly so long if we merely gave her food and water, and that when she was attacked and was found curled up and not moving, she desparately needed a vet’s attention, but I’m not sure she would have pulled through if she didn’t have the love and prayers she received. (As it is, we are delighted that she pulled through and is back to being her old sweet self.)

When I left to study, I moved to an apartment where pets were not allowed—not dogs, not goldfish. (And even if they were allowed, I wouldn’t want to buy a pet that I wasn’t reasonably confident I could care for properly with vacations, moves, etc. I wouldn’t want to put a pet to sleep because it was no longer convenient to me.) So, I thought, I knew the perfect creative solution. I would buy a Furby—a furry stuffed animal that talks and moves, due to the technology inside. (In other words, a pet that wouldn’t make messes or upset the powers that be.)

So I tried to convince myself that I could enjoy it as a pet, and for a while I thought I was successful: the Furby spoke its own language, and I learned a few words, being fond of languages. It would respond to my commands at least some of the time. The perfect pet for my situation… and it took a while before I acknowledged that there was something creepy about it. It wasn’t creepy when it just stood there, looking like a stuffed animal and adding color to my room. But when it opened and closed its eyes, the technology seemed different from what I was expected. It almost seemed like the unnatural un-life of a vampire. I knew, of course, that it would run according to technology, and having done a master’s thesis about artificial intelligence running into a brick wall, I knew that it wouldn’t be truly intelligent. Yet I didn’t count on the creep effect. Now the Furby stands as a decoration in my room, one I like looking at. But it isn’t really to conserve battery power that I don’t activate it very often. I recognize it as an impressive technical achievement, but not as a pet.

There’s a spark of something that is there in a real animal that isn’t there in a robot dressed in a stuffed animal costume, and it was driven home to me when I tried to pretend that it didn’t make a difference. There is something special about existing, and there is something more special about living as a plant does, and something about the moving force that is an animal. Something that I can enjoy when I am with pets.

What is the point of this? Am I saying that being an animal lover is an obligation? No. I do not believe that the minimum acceptable requirement is being an animal lover. I don’t think there is any moral imperative to learn how to deal with animals or have the faintest desire for a pet. But I would say that it is part of the spectrum of things that are acceptable. Not everyone needs to be a big animal lover, but it is an appropriate exercise of freedom. Not everyone needs to be a wine afficionado, but it makes sense to savor subtle differences in flavor and aroma for good wines that doesn’t make sense with Mountain Dew. Slowly savoring a tiny taste of different years of Mouton Cadet rouge is not incongruous; slowly savoring a tiny taste of different years of Mountain Dew is absurd. It might me good for making a delightful lampoon of wine snobs, but Mountain Dew does not merit a treatment ordinarily reserved for wine. For the same reason, there is something that fits about luxuriating on a waterbed that does not fit about trying to luxuriate and savor a sleeping bag on a hard floor. There is no moral obligation to seek out a waterbed or even a bed, but there’s a difference between a waterbed and a floor. Similar things could be said about painting with oil paints versus trying to paint with SAE 10W-40 motor oil. There’s something there to animals that means that they make much better pets than shampoo bottles, so that being an animal lover is a fitting response whether or not it is a moral obligation. And that “something there” is present whether or not you are an animal lover.

There’s something there. The “something there” of animals undergirds the possibility of people enjoying pets as some of us do, a “something there” that is not human and is less than humanity, but is something more than almost anything else in nature. There is also “something more” than machinery, and while there are not ethical problems about cruelty in how we treat machinery, there is a dimension to a farm animal that isn’t there for economic assets in general. That means that there are ethical concerns surrounding meat and animal products even after some of us acknowledge that God has given us authority to slaughter his creatures.

Animal rights activists tend to think animal rights means treating animal rights as human. When people have treated me as human, they have given me a bedroom and made other rooms available. They have spent time with me, and made good food available—not raw unless there was good reason to serve it raw. They have given me Christmas presents and a million other signs of respect that animals do not merit. If I looked at things in terms of rights (I don’t), I would draw a much narrower and much more modest list of rights for animals: being part of a herd, moving about out doors, seeing sunlight during the day, and so on. Nothing about beds and cooked foods, but treated like an animal, which is much less than being treated as human, but it’s also different from being treated like a mere piece of machinery.

This leaves loose ends untied. I haven’t explained why the breeding that went into the breed of 96% of turkeys sold in America (which causes an ungodly amount of meat to grow on a skeleton and beast that really aren’t built to carry anywhere near that much weight—imagine the frame of a compact car supporting the bulk and weight of a full-fledged SUV) is cruel, and the breeding of housecats (which also introduces profound changes that some animal rights activists call out-and-out cruel) is appropriate stewardship with regard to God’s creation. And this article is dense enough without exploring all of those. Environmentally conscious readers may not be pleased to note that my ranking of cruelty encourages people to buy foods that have some of the worst environmental footprint—a pound of beef is said to require 4000 gallons of our scarce water. You can make meat with less impact on the environment if you are willing to cut corners, not only economically but morally. But I would argue that cruelty concerns are heavier than even environmental. And those are presumably not the only loose ends I’ve left. But there are a couple of points I would like to underscore.

First, thinking in terms of “raw material” is inappropriate. Destruction may be justified, but if so it is justified destruction of items that have something to them besides what economic use we might be able to find. The whole system of factory farming treats animals as mere economic assets who cannot suffer or whose suffering is not as important as making the most money. That causes terrible, usually lifelong suffering. Cruelty to animals matters.

Second, cause as much cruelty as you need to, but not more. Try to have the lightest footprint that doesn’t cause trouble to you—trouble meaning something more than “A cheese and bacon omelet would really hit the spot.” (In my case trouble meant difficulty concentrating on my studies, and since then I’ve learned what my body can handle.) Eat to live. Don’t live to eat. Remember that not all foods are created equal. Aside from soy, organic animal products and meat, and sea-caught fish and seafood are by far the least cruel; beef is more cruel than these, but less cruel than animal products like milk, cheese, and eggs; dairy and other animal products are less cruel than most meats, including turkey, pork, chicken, and especially veal. If you are eating meat because it tastes good and not because your body needs its nutrition and energy, that is unnecessary.

Third, caring about the living conditions of farm animals has been framed as a liberal thing. That may be because there’s a problem which arose, and liberals have been better at waking up to something conservatives should have been noticing. If you are dubious of my credentials as a conservative, I invite you to read Our Food from God, published in a Christian journal that argues long and hard against even the more moderate forms of feminism. It’s not just liberals who have a strong moral ground to criticize factory farming. It’s just that liberals have been quicker to wake up and say, “Houston, we have a problem.”

Seeing animals only as financial assets whose suffering is not important, instead of God’s treasures which may be judiciously destroyed but have value independent of their economic usefulness, is the same basic error as seeing a person in terms of financial worth. The error is more grievous in seeing a person in terms of money, but that same basic error—as opposed to keeping a light footprint and trying to keep to justified destruction—has caused terrible animal suffering. Consider ways in which you might limit suffering you cause, and consider emailing a friend a link to CJSH.name/meat/. And maybe visit the store locator for Whole Paycheck, er, Whole Foods.

Read more of The Steel Orb on Amazon!

Can You Smoke Without Inhaling? Martial Arts and the Orthodox Christian

A provoking article about yoga in Georgia

There was an article which discussed the Orthodox Church and yoga in Georgia. It made no mention of martial arts, but it left me thinking about how its substance would meet martial arts.

Probably the most striking part of the discussion of the Orthodox Church in Georgia giving a cautious, skeptical eye to yoga, and one of yoga’s advocates said, “With time, as practitioners realized that “[b]y chanting one ‘Om,’ they’re not going to change their religion,” the objections vanished.” This answer reminds me of how Charles Babbage was asked by members of the Parliament if his analytical engine could arrive at the correct answer even if it were given incorrect data to work with. He said, “I cannot rightly apprehend what confusion of ideas would lead to such a question.” And I cannot rightly apprehend what confusion of ideas would lead an Orthodox to accept that reply.

The term ‘yoga’ is from the Sanskrit and means a spiritual path, and in that sense with unadorned simplicity an Orthodox Christian may claim to be a devotee of the Christian yoga, much as for that matter an Orthodox Christian speaking with a follower of the Budo (Warrior’s Way) may with unadorned simplicity claim to be following Christian Do. Something close to this insight is at the heart of Christ the Eternal Tao. The question of whether chanting one ‘Om,’ or rather, ‘Aum,’ as the “Sacred Syllable” is more properly called, will change your religion is neither here nor there. Saying the Jesus Prayer once not make one Orthodox, but this exact point is neither here nor there. Meditation in yoga does not stop with one ‘Om’ any more than Orthodox hesychasm stops with saying the Jesus Prayer once. On this point I would bring in that the Jesus Prayer is so important in Orthodoxy that in nineteenth century Russia there was genuine, heartfelt resistance to teaching the Jesus Prayer to laity on the concern that access to something so great without the protecting buttress of monastic living would lead them into pride to the point of spiritual illusion. At the risk of claiming insider status in Hinduism or treating Hinduism as a copy of Orthodoxy, I might suggest that the place of the “Sacred Syllable” in Hinduism is something like the place of the Jesus Prayer in Orthodoxy, alike foundational to the depths of their spiritual trasures, alike the metronome of silence to its practitioners. The concern that the yoga that is drawn from Hinduism constitutes a spiritual path inconsistent with Orthodoxy is anything but kneejerk conservatism, especially if chanting ‘Aum’ once is the Hindu equivalent of taking the Eucharist once (a point on which I am very unsure). But it represents some fundamental confusion of ideas to speak of “the neutral syllable ‘Om,'” as one workbook endorsed a popularization of yoga in the interest of treating depression and bipolar disorder.

Thus far I have focused on the analogies and similarities of hesychasm to the meditation that is found in Hinduism and Buddhism and is part of internal martial arts. It may be described as “divorced from” its religious roots (the founding grandmaster of Kuk Sool Won), but it is a common practice in internal martial arts (I never reached a high enough rank in Aiki Ninjutsu to be expected to join them in meditation), and it may not so easily be separated from its roots as it is presented. Part of the article I read on Georgia and yoga talked about meditation as affecting mind and body and in certain contexts produces a state of extreme suggestibility, quite far from the pattern in the saint’s lives where the Lord, the Theotokos, or a saint tells someone something, and ends up doing so at least two or three times because the devout Orthodox is simply more afraid of being deceived than of failing to jump at a command they consider themselves unworthy of. The state of extreme suggestibility produced by meditation opens the door to demonic “insights”, and one of the questions raised was, “Do you want to train in a discipline where the leaders are likely under demonic influence, in postures intended to be part of a spiritual path where you, too, will be invited to the place of suggestibility where you will be open to demonic influence?” The entire discipline points to the demonic; why think we can handle it safely? St. Paul writes, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” It might be begging the question to assume immediately that yoga is one of the cups referred to in this passage, but it is also precariously close to begging the question to assume that the passage is simply irrelevant to whether it is wise for Orthodox Christians to practice.

Have I been able to smoke without inhaling?

Before talking about martial arts, which I will get to after laying some preliminaries, I would like to talk about an area where I did my best to “smoke without inhaling.” I had come to believe that how Dungeons and Dragons and fantasy literature portray magic is not acceptable: perhaps it would be appropriate to portray a character’s occult engagement as a serious sin that opens a door to the demons who hate us, but as it was argued to me, it’s merely a depiction of a world with alternate physical laws, and when I took that up seriously and asked, “Do you know to what tolerances the constants of the physical world are tuned? If I were to have aim that good, I could hit something much smaller than a proton at the furthest reaches of the universe. Having alternate physical laws that would support ordinary life as we know it and in addition pack in magic is a very tall order. Would you also read fantasy of a world where adultery was harmless due to alternate laws?”

This last polemic may be beside the point here, but what is more to the point is that a friend, not to say very experienced author, responded to a mailing list post suggesting that marketing-wise the first three books an author publishes establish the author’s “brand”, and suggested that my brand might be non-magical fantasy. And while I would not wish for that brand now, this was a carefully considered suggestion from someone who had read my work at length, and it makes sense. The list of works that could be called nonmagical fantasy, some written after he made the suggestion, include the short stories The Spectacles, Within the Steel Orb, and the novellas, The Steel Orb, Firestorm 2034, and The Sign of the Grail. And there is a reason I have not displayed any of the novellas on my Amazon author page; The Sign of the Grail in particular was a work where I realized that my greatest successes (and in a work where I made some bad decisions that jeopardized the work) let me realize that what I was attempting was impossible. I would describe it as, “I succeeded, and in succeeding realized that what I was attempting was impossible.”

Some time later, a priest or monk was speaking me and warned about the perennial temptation to escape the here and now. This temptation is hard to pin down; it can take place physically, or mentally by imagination, or by street drugs, or… When this was pointed out, after initially resisting it, I realized that a great many things I did lacked the joy of gratefully accepting the here and now: they provide escape, and one good friend praised Within the Steel Orb precisely as a way to escape that he couldn’t put down.

I would have said then that I smoked, but didn’t inhale. I would now say that I inhaled more than I thought, and taking a “smoke, but do not inhale” attitude to sin is a losing proposition. Besides the works listed I made a role-playing game, The Minstrel’s Song, which is free of magic but still delivers the escape of fantasy. If you will, it offers a more dilute, less forceful delivery of poison than Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun, or many more of the plethora of role playing games out today, and perhaps God may use it to wean people off of that kind of recreation. I may have had a clear conscience when I wrote it, but remember Christ’s words, I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit, and this is one of the things God has pruned from me.

Proverbs asks, Can a man carry fire in his bosom and his clothes not be burned? This is God speaking, and the whole topic of fantasy, especially non-magical, represents an area where I tried to “smoke, but do not inhale,” and it is evident to me that I did inhale a good deal more than was good for me, and a great deal more than I realized. I had, and probably do still have, feet partly of iron and partly of clay.

Martial arts without inhaling?

When I touched base with my spiritual father years back about martial arts, he permitted it up to a point; I know that spiritual prescriptions are not to be copied from one patient to another, but he allowed me to study martial arts that were really just techniques, but not martial arts that were more of a philosophy. I had previously had about a year’s combined study between Kuk Sool Won and Karate; I thought that I would study another martial art without inhaling, and simply try to dodge certain aspects in studying Aiki Ninjutsu. (I tried to follow the spirit and intent of my spiritual father’s words, but perhaps I should have tried to ask him once I became aware of the neuro-linguistic programming and success plans.) What I really wanted was the stealth training, but God closed the door to the weekend training that would cover stealth.

After having gotten a certain point in, I emailed the instructor saying that I was coming to appreciate that Aiki Ninjutsu represents a complete spiritual tradition and does not mesh well with Christianity. I mentioned as an example the student’s Creed, which begins, not with the magnificence of “I believe in one God…”, but “I believe in myself. I am confident. I can accomplish my goals.” I said that believing in oneself represented a fundamental spiritual failing in Christianity. Had he asked questions or tried to understand me in dialogue beyond my first words, I would have referred to him to Chesterton in Orthodoxy, Chapter 2:

THOROUGHLY worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true. Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher said of somebody, “That man will get on; he believes in himself.” And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written [the asylum] “Hanwell.” I said to him, “Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.” He said mildly that there were a good many men after all who believed in themselves and who were not in lunatic asylums. “Yes, there are,” I retorted, “and you of all men ought to know them. That drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in himself. That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself. If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can’t act believe in themselves; and debtors who won’t pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness. Believing utterly in one’s self is a hysterical and superstitious belief like believing in Joanna Southcote: the man who has it has ‘Hanwell’ written on his face as plain as it is written on that omnibus.” And to all this my friend the publisher made this very deep and effective reply, “Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?” After a long pause I replied, “I will go home and write a book in answer to that question.” This is the book that I have written in answer to it.

I said that if he were to want to know more, I would have referred him to this passage. (The Fathers do not rebut the phrase “believing in yourself”, because it was coined and popularized after your time. When it was called “pride” or similar names, it was ripped to shreds.) Perhaps some of the more recent writing from Mount Athos may address “believing in yourself,” but I am limited in my grasp of what is current on Mount Athos.)

He responded with an authoritative statement that his art was appropriate for people of all religions or no religion, including Christian, and gave a recipe for success that began with believing in oneself. It was an Activist recipe, not a Saint’s, as I lay out two ultimate orientations in Farewell to Gandhi: The Saint and the Activist, not a saint’s; I did not expect him to take the role of the saint, but he seemed to only see the Activist approach as a live option. Now the Saint and the Activist do not represent mutually exhaustive options; I would expect Japan’s history to hold at least one other model besides them; and the martial art was presented as drawing on centuries or millenia of Japanese history, but it seemed to incorporate neuro-linguistic programming.

And on this point I will notice a difference between the martial art I was taught and prior martial arts: Kuk Sool Won and Karate both spoke, relatively frequently, of emphasizing “harmony between opponents.” In Aiki Ninjutsu, the code of ethics includes dealing with others in a “harmonious” way, but I never heard advocacy of humble harmony between opponents: by contrast, one of the more advanced lessons covered with beginners is “become the center:” you dictate what is going on. The art may have been combined with Aikido, which is perhaps the most harmonious-with-opponents of martial arts, but as it was combined and presented, I never heard on the mat someone speaking of harmony with one’s opponents, and I heard and saw practice at becoming the center. The teacher seemed to be trying to “win through becoming the center” rather than “win through harmony with one’s opponent.”

For my next point, I need to say a couple of words about the ki that is central to internal martial arts. “Ki”, translated “spirit” and “energy” in the Aikido poster hanging in the dojo, is a foundational concept in so-called “internal” martial arts and appears to me to be a large part of the inspiration for the Force as dramatized in Star Wars. The two are not interchangeable (for instance, I have never heard a martial artist discuss a light side and a dark side to ki or try to levitate something), but I’m not sure of any other concept readily accessible to the Western mind that translates “ki” (the Greek “pneuma” has been suggested by a Tae Kwon Do leader, but it is an approximation while “ki”, “chi”, and “qi” in Asian languges do translate each other or rather refer the user to the same concept). Interacting with ki is at the heart of internal martial arts.

Perhaps the most basic interaction with ki that I have seen in martial arts was to “ki out”, as it was called in Kuk Sool Won and maybe Karate, or “kiai” in Aiki Ninjutsu, sometimes translated “spirit yell.” Aiki Ninjutsu, unlike the other two arts as I was exposed to them, also has a system of four vowels, wrapped with consonants into English words in most English-speaking areas, which are used in different contexts; I am not sure about this but I believe they are connected to the elements of earth, air, fire, and water as they play out. And I emailed the instructor asking if it would make sense to train given that I was not comfortable with this spiritual practice. He gave me another “become the center” answer that spoke of my confusion of terminology, and I wrongly assumed that because it was called a “spirit yell”, it was a spiritual practice. But in my earlier practices totalling to about a year, I kied out and was never comfortable with it; it felt wrong. This time through, I watched a video where his beautiful wife, also a black belt and instructor, kiaied while cutting with the sword. What I saw in this was spiritual ugliness, as watching something unclean.

Besides telling me I was confused about terminology of the “spirit yell” and called it a spiritual practice out of confusion, he said that I was spending too much time trying to see how my religion would “fit into things,” gave a sharp quote about narrow-mindedness, and said it would make sense to “discontinue training.”

The other two times I was involved in martial arts, I did not try to avoid inhaling, and these were some of the driest times spiritually that I knew. This time, I signed a contract saying, in essence, “It is your choice what things you will participate in on an entirely voluntary basis; if you choose not to do certain things, it is our choice whether or not to withhold [advances in] rank.” Now I had expected to make progress slowly; martial arts’ first training is training me on my weakest point and while I believe I might advance quickly at higher levels where I would be in a better position to use my strengths, I expected slow progress. If I wanted to be trained differently, I could at my option pay for private lessons, but I was trying to just get through the basics without asking for exceptions to how the training usually works. I had not expected that the Sensei would like my asking about practicing without the spirit yell as a spiritual practice, but I was not expecting him to say that that was reason to discontinue practice.

Now if you will ask if I was angry with him, I would say “no”, and I don’t want to hear about him being hypocritical in his words about my narrow-mindedness. It seemed, if anything, like God acting through him to say “You have had enough” and take away a bottle of wine.

There were other times I quietly opted out and got away with it: on entering or leaving a class session, we were supposed to clap twice to get rid of bad energy and then clap once to acquire good energy. But I had been told repeatedly that I needed to yell a vowel on striking a target, and my opting out was noticed and given corrections during the last session.

Before I began practice

I had practiced two other martial arts, Kuk Sool Won and Karate as mentioned, and did not attempt to “smoke without inhaling.” Both of those I did with an unclean conscience, and there was an incredible growing dryness in my spiritual life. This time I tried to avoid inhaling, and in large measure the question on my conscious was, “You deal in two forms of power that do not basically edify. Do you wish to deal in one more?” I have, for now at least, a regular paycheck coming in, and the Gospel is remarkably cool to the usefulness of money, especially when it is not used for alms for the poor. I work with computers, and I am rather skeptical about whether they are as good for the whole person as they might seem. (See the collection: The Luddite’s Guide to Techonology, $24.99 paperback, $2.99 Kindle for more details.) The moral of these things is not that the forms of power are utterly unlawful, but that they are less valuable than they seem, they require us to take command of them if we are to use them rightly, and most of the time they could use debunking. And in fact I did try to debunk them in the discussion of the Sermon on the Mount in Farewell to Gandhi: The Saint and the Activist. I spoke of being “naked as Adam”, and at the risk of belaboring a metaphor underscored that what is forbidden here is not literal clothing but metaphorical armor. Now martial practice can be consistent with being “without metaphorical armor;” one martial artist made a parody ad for martial arts touting such things as, “Get beat up by people twice your age and half your size!” The further people get into martial arts, the more aware they are of their vulnerability, and it’s pure snake oil when someone advertises some super elite program that will make you the world’s greatest martial artist in two months. So I would be cautious of saying that no one in any martial art can be living the Sermon on the Mount, but I believe the teacher did me a kindness by virtually expelling me from the art, and I am in no rush to find another. Instead of trying more efforts to acquire dubiously helpful forms of power, I could turn my attention to areas where I could better use what computers I have. The Philokalia tells of people who were mired in clay and calling out to others not to become mired, found their salvation. Perhaps that describes The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, because while I may have some of the detachment that is argued, I am a great deal more enmeshed with technology than with some other things. I would not say that I am strong enough to successfully “smoke without inhaling” when dealing with technology.

Conclusion

When I first visited the dojo, I saw a ?red? belt student wearing a black T-shirt with tattered letters, saying on one side,

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

– Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

I wasn’t able to look up what the other side said, but I remember it was a quote from the same book. And I said mentally, “I know what kind of people I’m dealing with.” Maybe I should have been afraid, confronted him, or something else; I have never seen such socially acceptable hate speech. But part of my reaction was, “Ok; I’ve been warned; this will be like my time studying theology at Fordham.

The instructor spoke of my terminological confusion in referencing the term “spirit yell”, and in fairness that was not the primary term and was not elaborated at length. The primary term, however, was “kiai”, and the philologist in me believes that the root of “kiai” (Aiki Ninjutsu) was ki. Certainly the term “ki out” (Kuk Sool Won) refers to ki. In the groundwork book that is given to newcomers, my instructor is identified as a third dan in Toshindo and also having rank in Aiki Ninjutsu. “Toshindo” is an alternate way of reading the characters to “ninpo”, which is ninjutsu considered in its spiritual aspect. In my opinion, he shouldn’t have been surprised when I said that Aiki Ninjutsu looked like a complete spiritual system to me. But however much he may have contradicted my identification of kiai as spiritually significant, either it was a sine qua non of my continued participation, or my not asking this kind of question about how it fit with my faith was such, or both. And though this was passing, the book identified which of the four elements one was most closely connected to, by astrological sign. In retrospect, I marched past too many red flags; the onus for my remaining under such conditions is primarily on me.

As a child I read of ninja who had stealth, and their stealth technique was called ninjutsu. Something of that captivated my (among many) people’s imagination; etymologically, ‘ninjutsu’ meant the technique of becoming invisible, an invisibility I assumed was metaphorical for physically skilled stealth, sixteenth century ninja suits, and the like. On my conscience’s prompting, I did not do what I very much wanted to do in going to the training weekend in a wooded area where stealth is best taught. Instead I went through a crunch at work where it would have been political suicide to be unavailable at work, although I did not expect this when I did not sign up for the training. And my imagination was enough captivated that I decided not to heed some strong red flags. The guilt for this is my own, not any of theirs.

My endeavor would have been perhaps using people had I consciously embarked on it as a philosophical experiment. Martial arts are often considered to be deeply occult (I doubt the clapping of hands was the only action with an occult intent), and while I would have to limit what I say to exclude Western arts such as fencing or boxing, and arguably some Eastern arts as well such as Brazilian Jiu-jutsu, which one Christian practitioner told me had none of the philosophical element. Certain things still appeal to me more; I would much rather pin an opponent by skill than pummel another person to the point of not being able to get up for ten seconds. To me the combat training was a secondary goal to training in stealth. But even then the lesson I would draw from this is less about martial arts, than trying to smoke without inhaling. While I ignored red flags and the sharp warnings of my conscience, I kept my conscience clean once I was in training, and peer pressure took a back seat to trying to keep my conscience clean. And perhaps I was succeeding enough at smoking without inhaling that the teacher ended my training. But the overall lesson I draw from this is that it is foolish to think, “I can smoke without inhaling.” Perhaps at Fordham the position was one where I had to try to smoke without inhaling—and did so at the Lord’s bidding. Never mind situations like that; they do happen. But it was a severe breach of wisdom for me to take on a situation where I would have to smoke without inhaling. Practicing the techniques put violence before my imagination and stained the purity of my soul. That was consistent. I do not wish to dictate to soldiers who bear the cross of St. George what they must do—but I was not a soldier following orders either.

Whether with regards to fantasy or martial arts or entirely unrelated circles of temptation, it is an error to try to smoke without inhaling. Can a man carry fire in his bosom and his clothes not be burned?

The Luddite’s Guide to Technology

Cover for The Luddite's Guide to Technology

Since the Bridegroom was taken from the disciples, it has been a part of the Orthodox Church’s practice to fast. What is expected in the ideal has undergone changes, and one’s own practice is done in submission to one’s priest. The priest may work on how to best relax rules in many cases so that your fasting is a load you can shoulder. There is something of a saying, “As always, ask your priest,” and that goes for fasting from technology too. Meaning, specifically, that if you read this article and want to start fasting from technologies, and your priest says that it won’t be helpful, leave this article alone and follow your priest’s guidance.

From ancient times there has been a sense that we need to transcend ourselves. When we fast, we choose to set limits and master our belly, at least partly. “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food—maybe, but God will destroy them both.” So the Apostle answered the hedonists of his day. The teaching of fasting is that you are more than the sum of your appetites, and we can grow by giving something up in days and seasons. And really fasting from foods is not saying, “I choose to be greater than this particular luxury,” but “I choose to be greater than this necessity.” Over ninety-nine percent of all humans who have ever lived never saw a piece of modern technology: Christ and his disciples reached far and wide without the benefit of even the most obsolete of eletronic communication technologies. And monks have often turned back on what luxuries were available to them: hence in works like the Philokalia or the Ladder extol the virtue of sleeping on the floor. If we fast from technologies, we do not abstain from basic nourishment, but what Emperors and kings never heard of. At one monastery where monks lived in cells without running water or electricity, a monk commented that peasants and for that matter kings lived their whole lives without tasting these, or finding them a necessity. (Even Solomon in all his splendor did not have a Facebook page.)

In Orthodoxy, if a person is not able to handle the quasi-vegan diet in fasting periods, a priest may relax the fast, not giving carte blanche to eat anything the parishioner wants, but suggesting that the parishioner relax the fast to some degree, eating some fish or an egg. This basic principle of fasting is applicable to technology: rather than immediately go cold turkey on certain technologies, use “some fish or an egg” in terms of older technologies. Instead of texting for a conversation, drive over to a nearby friend.

(Have you ever noticed that during Lent many Orthodox Christians cut down or eliminate their use of Facebook?)

As mentioned in Technonomicon, what we call space-conquering technologies might slightly more appropriately be called body-conquering technologies, because they neutralize some of the limitations of our embodied state. The old wave of space-conquering technologies moves people faster or father than they could move themselves, and older science fiction and space opera often portrays bigger and better versions of this kind of space conquering technologies: personal jet packs, cars that levitate (think Luke Skywalker’s land speeder), or airplanes that function as spacecraft (his X-Wing). What is interesting to me here is that they serve as bigger and better versions of the older paradigm of space-conquering technologies, even if Luke remains in radio contact with the Rebel base. That is the older paradigm. The newer paradigm is technologies that make one’s physical location irrelevant, or almost irrelevant: cell phones, texting, Facebook, and remote work, are all not bigger and better ways to move your body, but bigger and better ways to do things in a mind-based context where the location of your body may be collected as in Google Plus, but your actual, physical location is really neither here nor there.

My own technology choices

I purchased a MacBook Pro laptop, and its specs are really impressive. Eight cores, eight gigabytes of RAM, a 1920×1200 17″ display, and gracefully runs Ubuntu Linux, Windows XP, Windows 7, and Windows 8 as guest OS’es. And it is really obsolete in one respect: it doesn’t have the hot new Retina display that has been migrated to newer MacBook Pros. I want to keep it for a long time; but my point in mentioning it here is that I did not purchase it as the hot, coolest new thing, but as a last hurrah of an old guard. The top two applications I use are Google Chrome and the Mac’s Unix terminal, and the old-fashioned laptop lets me take advantage of the full power of the Unix command line, and lets me exercise root privilege without voiding the warranty. For a Unix wizard, that’s a lot of power. And the one major thing which I did not “upgrade” was replacing the old-fashioned spindle drives with newer, faster solid state drives. The reason? Old-fashioned spindle drives can potentially work indefinitely, while spindle drives wear out after a certain number of times saving data: saving data slowly uses the drive up. And I realized this might be my only opportunity in a while to purchase a tool I want to use for a long while.

Laptops might continue to be around for a while, and desktops for that matter, but their place is a bit like landline phones. If you have a desk job, you will probably have a desktop computer and a landline, but the wave of the future is smartphones and tablets; the hot, coolest new thing is not a bulky, heavy MacBook, but whatever the current generation of iPad or Android-based tablet is. One youngster said, “Email is for old people,” and perhaps the same is to be said of laptops.

I also have an iPhone, which I upgraded from one of the original iPhones to an iPhone 4, not because I needed to have the latest new thing, but because my iPhone was necessarily on an AT&T contract, and however much they may advertise that the EDGE network my iPhone was on was “twice the speed of dialup,” I found when jobhunting that a simple, short “thank you” letter after an interview took amazingly many minutes for my phone to send, at well below the speed of obsolete dial-up speeds I had growing up: AT&T throttled the bandwidth to an incredibly slow rate and I got a newer iPhone with Verizon which I want to hold on to, even though there is a newer and hotter model available. But I am making conscious adult decisions about using the iPhone: I have sent perhaps a dozen texts, and have not used the iPod functionality. I use it, but I draw lines. My point is not exactly that you should adopt the exact same conscious adult decisions as I do about how to use a smartphone, but that you make a conscious adult decision in the first place.

And lastly, I have another piece of older technology: a SwissChamp XLT, the smallest Swiss Army Knife that includes all the functionality of a SwissChamp while also having the functionality of a Cybertool. It has, in order, a large blade, small blade, metal saw, nail file, metal file, custom metal-cutting blade, wood saw, fish scaler, ruler in centimeters and inches, hook remover, scissors, hooked blade, straight blade with concave curved mini-blade, pharmacist’s spatula, cybertool (Phillips screwdrivers in three sizes, Torx screwdrivers in three sizes, hexagonal bit, and a slotted screwdriver), pliers, magnifying glass, larger Phillips screwdriver, large slotted screwdriver, can opener, wire stripper, small slotted screwdriver, can opener, corkscrew, jeweller’s screwdriver, pin, wood chisel, hook, smaller slotted screwdriver, and reamer. It’s somewhat smaller than two iPhones stacked on top of each other, and while it’s wider than I like, it is also something of a last hurrah. It is a useful piece of older technology.

I mention these technologies not to sanction what may or may not be owned—I tried to get as good a computer as I could partly because I am an IT professional, and I am quite grateful that my employer let me use it for the present contract. I also drive a white 2001 Saturn, whose front now looks a bit ugly after cosmetic damage. I could get it fixed fairly easily, but it hasn’t yet been a priority. (But this car has also transported the Kursk Root icon.) But with this as with other technologies, I haven’t laid the reins on the horse’s neck. I only use a well-chosen fragment of my iPhone’s capabilities, and I try not to use it too much: I like to be able to use the web without speed being much of an issue, but I’m not on the web all the time. And I have never thought “My wheels are my freedom;” I try to drive insofar as it advances some particular goal.

And there are some things when I’m not aware of the brands too much. I don’t really know what brands my clothing are, with one exception, Hanes, which I am aware of predominantly because the brand name is sewed in large, hard-to-miss letters at the top.

And I observe that technologies are becoming increasingly “capture-proof”. Put simply, all technologies can be taken away from us physically, but technologies are increasingly becoming something that FEMA can shut off from far away in a heartbeat. All network functionality on smartphones and tablets are at the mercy of network providers and whoever has control over them; more broadly, “The network is the computer,” as Sun announced slightly prematurely in its introduction of Java; my own Unix-centric use of my Mac on train rides, without having or wanting it to have internet access during the train ride, may not be much more than a historical curiosity.

But the principle of fasting from technology is fine, and if we can abstain from foods on certain days, we can also abstain from or limit technologies on certain days. Furthermore, there is real merit in knowing how to use older technologies. GPS devices can fail to pick up a signal. A trucker’s atlas works fine even if there’s no GPS signal available.

The point of this soliloquoy

The reason I am writing this up is that I am not aware of too many works on how to use technology ascetically. St. Paul wrote, There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content.. This statement of necessities does not include shelter, let alone “a rising standard of living” (meaning more things that one uses). Perhaps it is OK to have a car; it is what is called “socially mandated”, meaning that there are many who one cannot buy groceries or get to their jobs without a car. Perhaps a best rule of thumb here is, to repeat another author, “Hang the fashions. Buy only what you need.” It is a measure by which I have real failings. And don’t ask, “Can we afford what we need?”, but “Do we need what we can afford?” If we only purchase things that have real ascetical justification, there’s something better than investing for the left-over money: we can give to the poor as an offering to Christ. Christ will receive our offering as a loan.

Some years ago I wanted to write The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, and stopped because I realized I wasn’t writing anything good or worthy of the title. But the attitude of the Church Fathers given the technology of the day: monasticism renounces all property, and the faithful are called to renounce property in their hearts even if they have possessions. Monastic literature warns the monk of seeking out old company, where “old company” does not mean enticement to sexual sin exactly, but one’s very own kin. The solitary and coenobetic alike cut ties to an outside world, even ties one would think were sacrosanct (and the Bible has much to say about caring for one’s elders). If a monk’s desire to see his father or brother is considered a temptation to sin that will dissipate monastic energy, what do we have to make of social media? The friendships that are formed are of a different character from face-to-face relationships. If monks are forbidden to return to their own kin as shining example, in what light do we see texting, email, IM’s, and discussion forums? If monks are forbidden to look at women’s faces for fear of sexual temptation, what do we make of an internet where the greatest assault on manhood, porn, comes out to seek you even if you avoid it? It’s a bit like a store that sells food, household supplies, and cocaine: and did I mention that the people driving you to sample a little bit of cocaine are much pushier than those offering a biscuit and dip sample?

The modern Athonite tradition at least has Luddite leanings; Athos warns against national identification numbers and possibly computers, and one saint wrote apocalyptically about people eating eight times as much as people used to eat (has anyone read “The Supersizing of America”?) and of “wisdom” being found that would allow people to swim like fish deep into the sea (we have two technologies that can do that: SCUBA gear and submarines), and let one person speak and be heard on the other side of the world (how many technologies do we have to do that? Quite a lot).

All of this is to say that Orthodoxy has room to handle technologies carefully, and I would suggest that not all technologies are created equal.

The Luddite’s Guide to Technology

For the different technologies presented my goal is not exactly to point to a course of action as to suggest a conscious adult decision to make, perhaps after consulting with one’s priest or spiritual father. And as is usual in Orthodoxy, the temptation at least for converts is to try to do way too much, too fast, at first, and then backslide when that doesn’t work.

It is better to keep on stretching yourself a little.

Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, using technology in an ascetical way will be countercultural and constitute outlier usage.

A   B   C   D   E   F   G   H   I   J   K   L   M   N   O   P   Q   R   S   T   U   V   W   X   Y   Z

Advertising

Advertising is kin to manipulation, propaganda, and pornography.

Advertising answers the question, “Was economic wealth made for man, or man for economic wealth?” by decisively saying, “Man was made for economic wealth.” It leads people to buy things that are not in their best interest. If you see someone using a technology as part of a form of life that is unhelpful, the kind of thing that makes you glad to be a Luddite, you have advertising to thank for that.

Advertising stirs discontent, which is already a problem, and leads people to ever higher desires, much like the trap of pornography. The sin is covetousness and lust, but the core structure is the same. Advertising and pornography are closely related kin.

Advertising doesn’t really sell product functionality; it sells a mystique. And we may have legitimate reason to buy the product, but not the mystique. And maybe back off on a useful purchase until we are really buying the product and not the mystique.

Alcohol

Alcohol is not exactly a new technology, although people have found ways of making stronger and stronger drinks as time goes on. However, there is a lesson to learn with alcohol that applies to technology.

One article read outlined a few positions on Christian use of alcohol, ending with a position that said, in essence, “Using alcohol appropriately is a spiritual challenge and there is more productive spiritual work in drinking responsibly than just not drinking.” I don’t think the authors would have imposed this position on people who know they have particular dangers in using alcohol, but they took a sympathetic look at positions of Christians who don’t drink, and then said “The best course of all is not from trying to cut off the danger by not drinking, but rising to the spiritual lesson.”

Yet an assumption behind all of the positions presented is that alcohol is something where you cannot safely lay the reins on the horse’s neck. You need to be in command, or to put it differently ceaselessly domineer alcohol if you use it. This domineering is easy for some people and harder for others, and some people may be wisest to avoid the challenge.

Something of the same need exists in our use of technology. We may use certain technologies or may not, but it is still a disaster to let the technology go wherever it wills. Sometimes and with some technologies, we may abstain. Other technologies we may domineer, even if we may find if we are faithful that “my yoke is easy and my burden is light:” establishing dominion and holding the reins may be easier when it becomes a habit. But the question with a technology we use is not, “May we use it as much as we want, or not at all?”, any more than the question about wine would be, “May we use it as much as we want, or not at all?” Proper use is disciplined. Proper use is domineering. And we do not always have it spelled out what is like having one or two drinks a day, and what is like having five or ten. Nor do we have other rules of thumb spelled out, like, “Think carefully about drinking when you have a bad mood, and don’t drink in order to fix a bad mood.”

The descriptions of various “technologies and other things” are meant to provide some sense of what the contours of technologies are, and what is like drinking one or two drinks, and what is like drinking five or ten drinks a day.

Anti-aging medicine
The Christian teaching is that life begins at conception and ends at natural death, and no that life begins at 18 and ends at 30.

The saddest moment in The Chronicles of Narnia comes when we hear that Her Majesty Queen Susan the Gentle is “no longer a friend of Narnia;” she is rushing as quickly as possible to the silliest age of her life, and will spend the rest of her life trying to remain at that age, which besides being absolutely impossible, is absolutely undesirable.

Quite a lot of us are afflicted by the Queen Susan syndrome, but there is a shift in anti-aging medicine and hormone replacement therapy. Part of the shift in assistive technologies discussed below is that assistive technologies are not just intended to do what a non-disabled person can do, so for instance a reader can read a page of a book, giving visually impaired people equivalent access to a what a sighted person could have, to pushing as far what they think is an improvement, so that scanning a barcode may not just pull up identification of the product bearing the barcode, but have augmented reality features of pulling a webpage that says much more than what a sighted person could see on the tab. One of the big tools of anti-aging medicine is hormone replacement therapy, with ads showing a grey-haired man doing pushups with a caption of, “My only regret about hormone replacement therapy is that I didn’t start it sooner,” where the goal is not to restore functionality but improve it as much as possible. And the definition of improvement may be infantile; here it appears to mean that a man who might be a member of the AARP has the same hormone levels as he did when he was 17.

There was one professor I had who was covering French philosophy, discussed Utopian dreams like turning the seas to lemonade, and called these ideas “a Utopia of spoiled children.” Anti-aging medicine is not about having people better fulfill the God-ordained role of an elder, but be a virtual youth. Now I have used nutriceuticals to bring more energy and be able to create things where before I was not, and perhaps that is like anti-aging medicine that has me holding on to youthful creativity when God summons me to goFurther up and further in! But everything I know about anti-aging is that it is not about helping people function gracefully in the role of an elder, but about making any things about aging optional.

In my self-absorbed Seven-Sided Gem, I talked about one cover to the AARP’s magazine, then called My Generation, which I originally mistook for something GenX. In the AARP’s official magazine as I have seen it, the marketing proposition is the good news, not that it is not that bad to be old, but it is not that old to be old. The women portrayed look maybe GenX in age, and on the cover I pulled out, the person portrayed, in haircut, clothing, and posture, looked like a teenager. “Fifty and better people” may see political and other advice telling them what they can do to fight high prescription prices, but nothing I have seen gives the impression that they can give to their community, as elders, out of a life’s wealth of experience.

Not that there are not proper elders out there. I visited a family as they celebrated their son’s graduation, and had long conversations with my friend’s mother, and with an elderly gentleman (I’ve forgotten how he was related). She wanted to hear all about what I had to say about subjects that were of mutual interest, and he talked about the wealth of stories he had as a sailor and veterinarian. In both cases I had the subtle sense of a younger person being handled masterfully by an elder, and the conversation was unequal—unequal but entirely fitting, and part of the “entirely fitting” was that neither of them was trying to say, “We are equal—I might as well be as young as you.”

Anti-aging medicine is not about aging well, but trying to be a virtual young person when one should be doing the serious, weight, and profoundly important function as elders.

Assistive technologies

This, at least, will seem politically incorrect: unless they have an inordinate monetary or moral cost, assistive technologies allow disabled people to function at a much higher level than otherwise. And I am not going to exactly say that people with disabilities who have access to assistive technologies should turn them down, but I am going to say that there is something I am wary of in the case of assistive technologies.

There is the same question as with other technologies: “Is this really necessary? Does this help?” A blind friend said,

I was recently interviewed for a student’s project about assistive technology and shopping, and I told her that I wouldn’t use it in many circumstances. First of all, I think some of what is available has more ‘new toy’ appeal and is linked to advertising. Secondly, I think some things, though they may be convenient, are dehumanising. Why use a barcode scanner thingummy to tell what’s in a tin when I can ask someone and relate to someone?

Now to be clear, this friend does use assistive technologies and is at a high level of functioning: “to whom much is given, much is required.” I get the impression that the assistive technologies she has concerns about, bleed into augmented reality. And though she is absolutely willing to use assistive technologies, particularly when they help her serve others, she is more than willing to ask as I am asking of many technologies, “What’s the use? Does this help? Really help?

But there is another, more disturbing question about assistive technologies. The question is not whether individual assistive technologies are helpful when used in individual ways, but whether a society that is always inventing higher standards for accessibility and assistive technology has its deepest priorities straight. And since I cannot answer that out of what my friend has said, let me explain and talk about the Saint and the Activist and then talk about how similar things have played out in my own life.

I write this without regrets about my own efforts and money spent in creating assistive technologies, and with the knowledge that in societies without assistive technologies many disabled people have no secular success. There are notable examples of disabled people functioning at a high level of secular success, such as the noted French Cabalist Isaac the Blind, but the much more common case was for blind people to be beggars. The blind people met by Christ in the Gospel were without exception beggars. And there are blind beggars in first world countries today.

So what objection would I have to assistive technologies which, if they may not be able to create sight, none the less make the hurdles much smaller and less significant. So, perhaps, medicine cannot allow some patients to read a paper book. Assistive technologies make a way for them to access the book about as well as if they could see the book with their eyes. What is there to object in making disabled people more able to function in society as equal contributors?

The answer boils down to the distinction between the Saint and the Activist as I have discussed them in An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism and The Most Politically Incorrect Sermon in History: A commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. The society that is patterned after the Saint is ordered towards such things as faith and contemplation. The society patterned after the Activist is the one that seeks to ensure the maximum secular success of its members. And if the Activist says, “Isn’t it wonderful how much progress we have made? Many disabled people are functioning at a high level!”, the Saint says, “There are more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your Activism. We have bigger fish to fry.” And they do.

Now to be clear, I am not saying that you should not use assistive technologies to help give back to society. Nor do I regret any of the time I’ve spent on assistive technologies. The first idea I wanted to patent was an assistive technology. But we have bigger fish to fry.

There is a way in which I am a little like the blind beggar in many societies that took the Saint for their pattern. It’s on a much lesser scale, but I tried my hardest to earn a Ph.D. in theology. At Cambridge University in England the faculty made me switch thesis topic completely, from a topic I had set at the beginning of the year, when two thirds of the year had passed and I had spent most of my time on my thesis. My grades were two points out of a hundred less than the cutoff for Ph.D. continuation, and Cambridge very clearly refused for me to continue beyond my master’s. So then I applied to other programs, and Fordham offered an assistantship, and I honestly found cancer easier than some of the things that went wrong there. I showed a writeup to one friend and he wrote, “I already knew all the things you had written up, and I was still shocked when I read it.” All of which to say is that the goal I had of earning a doctorate, and using that degree to teach at a seminary, seemed shattered. With all that happened, the door to earning a Ph.D. was decisively closed.

Now I know that it is possible to teach at a seminary on a master’s; it may be a handicap, but it certainly does not make such a goal impossible. But more broadly God’s hand was at work. For starters, I survived. I believe that a doctor would look at what happened and say, “There were a couple of places where what happened could have killed you. Be glad you’re alive.” And beyond that, there is something of God’s stern mercy: academic writing takes a lot more work than being easy to read, and only a few people can easily read it. I still have lessons to learn about work that is easy to read, and this piece may be the least readable thing I’ve written in a while. But all the same, there is a severe mercy in what God has given. I have a successful website largely due to chance, or rather God’s providence; I was in the right place at the right time and for all my skill in web work happened to have successes I had no right to expect.

And God works through assistive technologies and medicine. When I was in middle school, I had an ankle that got sorer and sorer until my parents went to ask a doctor if hospitalization was justified. The doctor’s response, after taking a sample of the infection, said, “Don’t swing by home; go straight to the hospital and I’ll take care of the paperwork on this end for his admission.” And I was hospitized for a week or so—the bed rest day and night being the first time ever that I managed to get bored teaching myself from my father’s calculus textbook—and after I was discharged I still needed antibiotic injections every four hours. That involved medical treatment is just as activist as assistive technology, and without it I would not have written any the pieces on this website besides the Apple ][ BASIC four dimensional maze.

I am rather glad to be alive now.

So I am in a sense both a Ph.D. person who was lost on Activist terms, but met with something fitting on a Saint’s terms, and a person who was found on Activist terms. God works both ways. But still, there are more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of in Activism.

Augmented Reality

When I was working at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, one part of the introduction I received to the CAVE and Infinity Wall virtual reality was to say that virtual reality “is a superset of reality,” where you could put a screen in front of a wall and see, X-ray-style, wires and other things inside the wall.

Virtual reality does exist, and is popularized by Second Life among many others, but that may not be the main niche carved out. The initial thought was virtual reality, and when the dust has started to settle, the niche carved out is more a matter of augmented reality. Augmented reality includes, on a more humble level, GPS devices and iPhone apps that let you scan a barcode or QR code and pull up web information on the product you have scanned. But these are not the full extent of augmented reality; it’s just an early installment. It is an opportunity to have more and more of our experience rewritten by computers and technology. Augmented technology is probably best taken at a lower dose and domineered.

Big Brother

Big Brother is a collection of technologies, but not a collection of technologies you choose because they will deliver a Big Brother who is watching you. Everything we do electronically is being monitored; for the moment the U.S. government is only using it for squeaky-clean apparent uses, and has been hiding its use. Even the Amish now are being monitored; they have decided not to hook up to a grid, such as electricity or landline phones, but cell phones can be used if they find them expedient to their series of conscious decisions about whether to adopt technologies. Amish use the horse and buggy but not the car, not because the horse is older, but because the horse and buggy provide some limited mobility without tearing apart the local community. The car is rejected not because it is newer, but because it frees people from the tightly bound community they have. And because they carry cell phones, the NSA tracks where they go. They might not do anything about it, but almost everything about us is in control of Big Brother. And though I know at least one person who has decided carrying a cell phone and having an iPass transponder is not worth being tracked, you have to be more Luddite than the Luddites, and know enough of what you are doing that you are already on file, if you are to escape observation.

Big Brother has been introduced step by step, bit by bit. First there were rumors that the NSA was recording all Internet traffic. Then it came out in the open that the NSA was indeed recording all Internet traffic and other electronic communications, and perhaps (as portrayed on one TV program) we should feel sorry for the poor NSA which has to deal with all this data. That’s not the end. Now Big Brother is officially mainly about national security, but this is not an outer limit either. Big Brother will probably appear a godsend in dealing with local crime before an open hand manipulating the common citizen appears. But Big Brother is here already, and Big Brother is growing.

Books and ebooks
I was speaking with one friend who said in reference to Harry Potter that the Harry Potter series got people to read, and anything that gets people to read is good. My response (a tacit response, not a spoken one) is that reading is not in and of itself good. If computers are to be used in an ascetically discriminating fashion, so is the library; if you will recall my earlier writing about slightly inappropriate things at Cambridge and worse at Fordham, every single person I had trouble with was someone who read a lot, and presumably read much more than someone caught up in Harry Potter mania.

Orthodoxy is at heart an oral, or oral-like culture, and while it uses books, it was extremely pejorative when one friend said of a Protestant priest in Orthodox clothes, “I know what book he got that [pastoral practice] from.” The first degree of priesthood is called a ‘Reader’, and when one is tonsured a Reader, the bishop urges the Reader to read the Scriptures. The assumption is not that the laity should be reading but need not read the Scriptures, but that the laity can be doing the job of laity without being literate. Or something like that. Even where there is reading, the transmission of the most imporant things is oral in character, and the shaping of the laity (and presumably clergy) is through the transmission of oral tradition through oral means. In that sense, I as an author stand of something exceptional among Orthodox, and “exceptional” does not mean “exceptionally good.” Most of the Orthodox authors now came to Orthodoxy from the West, and their output may well be appropriate and a fitting offering from what they have. However, the natural, consistent result of formation in Orthodoxy does not usually make a non-author into an author.

As far as books versus ebooks, books (meaning codices) are a technology, albeit a technology that has been around for a long time and will not likely disappear. Ebooks in particular have a long tail effect. The barriers to put an ebook out are much more than to put a traditional book out. It has been said that ebooks are killing Mom and Pop bookstores, and perhaps it is worth taking opportunities to patronize local businesses. But there is another consideration in regards to books versus cheaper Kindle editions. The Kindle may be tiny in comparison to what it holds, and far more convenient than traditional books.

But it is much more capture proof.

“Capture proof”

In military history, the term “capture proof” refers to a weapon that is delicate and exacting in its maintenance needs, so that if it is captured by the enemy, it will rather quickly become useless in enemy soldier’s hands.

The principle can be transposed to technology, except that possessing this kind of “capture proof” technology does not mean that it is an advantage that “we” can use against “them.” It comes much closer to say that FEMA can shut down its usefulness at the flick of a switch. As time has passed, hot technologies become increasingly delicate and capture proof: a laptop is clunkier than a cool tablet, but the list of things one can do with a tablet without network access is much shorter than the list of things can do with a laptop without network access. Or, to take the example of financial instruments, the movement has been towards more and more abstract derivatives, and these are fragile compared to an investment in an indexed mutual fund, which is in turn fragile compared to old-fashioned money.

“Cool,” “fragile,” and “capture proof” are intricately woven into each other.

Einstein said, “I do not know what weapons World War III will be fought with, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” We might not have to wait until World War IV. Much of World War III may be fought with sticks and stones.

Cars
Perhaps the most striking Luddite horror of cars that I have seen is in C.S. Lewis. He talked about how they were called “space-conquering devices,” while they should have been called “space-annihilating devices,” because he experienced future shock that cars could make long distances very close. (And someone has said, “The problem with the English is that they think a hundred miles is a long distance, and the problem with the U.S. is that they think a hundred years is a long time.”) The “compromise solution” he offered was that it was OK to use cars to go further as a special solution on weekend, but go with other modes of transport for the bread-and-butter of weekdays. (And this is more or less how Europeans lean.)

Cars are one of many technologies that, when introduced, caused future shock. It’s taken as normal by subsequent generations, but there is a real sense of “This new technology is depriving us of something basically human,” and that pattern repeats. And perhaps, in a sense, this shock is the pain we experience as we are being lessened by degrees and slowly turning from man to machine-dominated.

CFLs and incandescent bulbs

There is something striking about CFL’s. American society has a long history of technology migrations, and a thorough enough “out with the old, in with the new” that working 16mm film projectors, for instance, now fetch a price because we have so thoroughly gotten rid of them in favor of video. And people who use them now aren’t using them as the normal way to see video; they may want to see old film canisters and maybe even digitize them (so they can be seen without the use of a film projector).

Compare with other countries such as Lebanon which have no real concept of being obsolete; they have a mix of old and new technologies and they get rid of an old piece of technology, not because it is old, but because it is worn out.

The fact that we are transitioning to CFL’s for most purposes is not striking; transitions happen all the time. One could trace “If you have a phone, it’s a landline,” to “You can have a two pound car phone, but it’s expensive,” to “You can have a cell phone that fits in your hand, but it’s expensive,” to “You can have a cell phone, which is much cheaper now,” to “You can have a cell phone that does really painful Internet access,” to “You can have a cell phone with graceful Internet access.” And there have been many successions like this, all because the adopters thought the new technology was an improvement on the old.

CFL’s are striking and disturbing because, while there may be a few people who think that slightly reduced electricity usage (much smaller than a major household appliance) justifies the public handling fragile mercury containers, by and large the adoption is not of a snazzier successor to incandescent bulbs. Not only must they be handled like live grenades, but the light is inferior. The human race grew up on full-spectrum light, such as the sun provides. Edison may not have been aiming for a full-spectrum light, but his light bulb does provide light across the spectrum; that is an effect of an incandescent light that produces light that looks at all near. This is a strange technology migration, and a rather ominous omen.

Given that most bulbs available now are CFL’s, there are better and worse choices. Some bulbs have been made with a filter outside the glass so they give off light that looks yellow rather than blue. I wouldn’t look for that in and of itself. But some give a full spectrum, even if it is a bluish full spectrum, and that is better. There are also lights sold that are slightly more shatter resistant, which is commendable, and there are some bulbs that are both full spectrum and shatter resistant. I’d buy the last kind if possible, or else a full spectrum CFL, at a hardware store if possible and online if not.

But I would momentarily like to turn attention from the extinction of regular use of incandescent bulbs to their introduction. Candles have been used since time immemorial, but they’re not a dimmer version of a light bulb. Even if you have candlesticks and candles lit, the candle is something of a snooze button or a minor concession: societies that used candles still had people active more or less during daylight hours. (Daylight Saving Time was an attempt to enable people to use productive daylight hours which they were effectively losing.) People who used candles were still effectively tied to the cycle of day and night. Light bulbs caused a shock because they let you operate as early or as late as you wanted. Candles allowed you to wrap up a few loose ends when night had really fallen. Light bulbs made nighttime optional. And it caused people future shock.

I have mentioned a couple of different responses to CFL’s: the first is to buy full spectrum and preferably shatter resistant (and even then handle the mercury containers like a live grenade), the second is turning to the rhythm of day and light and getting sunlight where you can. Note that inside most buildings, even with windows, sunlight is not nearly as strong as what the human person optimally needs. Let me mention one other possibility.

There is a medical diagnosis called ‘SAD’ for ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’, whose patients have lower mood during the winter months when we see very little light. The diagnosis seems to me a bit like the fad diagnosis of YTD, or Youthful Tendency Disorder, discussed in The Onion. If you read about it and are half-asleep it sounds like a description of a frightening syndrome. If you are awake you will recognize a description of perfectly normal human tendencies. And the SAD diagnosis of some degree of depression when one is consistently deprived of bright light sounds rather normal to me. And for that reason I think that some of the best lighting you can get is with something from the same manufacturer of the Sunbox DL SAD Light Box Light Therapy Desk Lamp. That manufacturer is one I trust; I am a little wary of some of their cheaper competitors. There is one cheaper alternative that provides LED light. Which brings me to a problem with LED’s. Basically, LEDs emit light of a single color. While you can choose what that color may be, white represents a difficult balancing act. If you’ve purchased one of those LED flashlights, it has what is called “lunar white”, which is basically a way of cheating at white light. (If you’ve ever gone to a dark closet and tried to pick out clothing by a lunar white flashlight, this may be why you had trouble telling what color your clothing was.) Expensive as they may be, a Sunbox light box may fit in to your best shot at taking in a healthy level of light.

Children’s toys

Charles Baudelaire, in his “la Morale du Joujou” (“the moral of the toy”) talks about toys and the fact that the best toys leave something to the imagination. Children at play will imagine that a bar of soap is a car; girls playing with dolls will play the same imagined drama with rag dolls as they will with dolls worth hundreds of dollars. There has been a shift, where Lego sets have shifted from providing raw material to being a specific model, made of specilized pieces, that the child is not supposed to imagine, only to assemble. Lego sets are perhaps the preferred childhood toy of professional engineers everywhere; some of them may have patronized Lego’s competitors, but the interesting thing about Legos that are not “you assemble it” models is that you have to supply something to what you’re building. Lego the company might make pieces of different sizes and shapes and made them able to stick together without an adhesive; I wouldn’t downplay that achievement on the part of the manufacturer, but the child playing with Legos supplies half of the end result. But this is not just in assembly; with older models, the Legos didn’t look exactly like what they were supposed to be. There was one time when I saw commercials for a miniature track where some kind of car or truck would transport a payload (a ball bearing, perhaps), until it came to a certain point and the payload fell through the car/track through a chute to a car below. And when I asked my parents to buy it for me and they refused, I built it out of Legos. Of course it did not look anything like what I was emulating, but I had several tracks on several levels and a boxy square of a vehicle would carry a marble along the track until it dropped its payload onto a car in the level below. With a bit of imagination it was a consolation for my parents not getting the (probably expensive) toy I had asked for, and with a bit of imagination a short broom is a horse you can ride, a taut cord with a sheet hung over it is an outdoor tent, and a shaky box assembled from sofa cushions is a fort. Not, perhaps, that children should be given no toys, or a square peg should be pounded into a round hole by giving everyone old-style Lego kits, but half of a children’s toy normally resides in the imagination, and the present fashion in toys is to do all the imagining for the child.

And there is a second issue in what is imagined for children. I have not looked at toys recently, but from what I understand dragons and monsters are offered to them. I have looked rather deeply into what is offered to children for reading. The more innocuous part is bookstores clearing the classics section of the children’s area for Disney Princess books. The more serious matter is with Dealing with Dragons and other Unman’s Tales.

The Cloud

Cloud computing is powerful, and it originated as a power tool in supercomputing, and has now come down to personal use in software like Evernote, a note-taking software system that synchronizes across all computers and devices which have it installed.

Essentially, besides being powerful, cloud computing, besides being very powerful, is one more step in abstraction in the world of computing. It means that you use computers you have never even seen. Not that this is new; it is a rare use case for someone using the Web to own any of the servers for the sites he is visiting. But none the less the older pattern is for people to have their own computers, with programs they have downloaded and/or purchased, and their own documents. The present trend to offload more and more of our work to the cloud is a step in the direction of vulnerability to the damned backswing. The more stuff you have in the cloud, the more of your computer investment can be taken away at the flick of a switch, or collapse because some intervening piece of the puzzle has failed. Not that computers are self-sufficient, but the move to the cloud is a way of being less self-sufficient.

My website is hosted on a cloud virtual private server, with one or two “hot spares” that I have direct physical access to. There are some reasons the physical machine, which has been flaky for far longer than a computer should be allowed to be flaky (and which keeps not getting fixed), is one I keep as a hot spare.

Contraception and Splenda
There was one mostly Catholic where I was getting annoyed at the degree of attention given to one particular topic: I wrote,

Number of posts in this past month about faith: 6

Number of posts in this past month about the Bible: 8

Number of posts in this past month about the Eucharist: 9

Number of posts in this past month extolling the many wonders of Natural Family Planning: 13

The Catholic Church’s teaching on Natural Family Planning is not, “Natural Family Planning, done correctly, is a 97% effective way to simulate contraception.” The Catholic Church’s teaching on children is that they are the crown and glory of sexual love, and way down on page 509 there is a footnote saying that Natural Family Planning can be permissible under certain circumstances.

And if I had known it, I would have used a quotation from Augustine I cited in Contraception, Orthodoxy, and Spin Doctoring: A look at an influential but disturbing article:

Is it not you who used to counsel us to observe as much as possible the time when a woman, after her purification, is most likely to conceive, and to abstain from cohabitation at that time, lest the soul should be entangled in flesh? This proves that you approve of having a wife, not for the procreation of children, but for the gratification of passion. In marriage, as the marriage law declares, the man and woman come together for the procreation of children. Therefore whoever makes the procreation of children a greater sin than copulation, forbids marriage, and makes the woman not a wife, but a mistress, who for some gifts presented to her is joined to the man to gratify his passion. Where there is a wife there must be marriage. But there is no marriage where motherhood is not in view; therefore neither is there a wife. In this way you forbid marriage. Nor can you defend yourselves successfully from this charge, long ago brought against you prophetically by the Holy Spirit (source; the Blessed Augustine is referring to I Tim 4:1-3).

Thus spoke the Catholic Church’s favorite ancient theologian on contraception; and to this it may be added that the term ‘Natural Family Planning’ is deceptive and perhaps treacherous in how it frames things. There is nothing particularly natural about artificially abstaining from sexual intercourse precisely when a woman is capable of the greatest desire, pleasure, and response.

The chief good of the marriage act is that it brings in to being new images of God; “a baby is God’s vote that the world should go on.” The chief good of eating is that it nourishes the body. Now there are also pleasures, but it is an act of confusion to see them as pleasure delivery systems and an act of greater confusions to frustrate the greater purpose of sex or eating so that one may, as much as possible, use them just as pleasure delivery systems.

There are other strange effects of this approach: for starters, Splenda use correlates to increased weight gain. Perhaps this is not strange: if you teach someone, “You can eat as much candy and drink as many soft drinks as you like,” the lesson is “You can consume more without worrying about your waistline,” and you will consume more: not only more foods containing Splenda, but more foods not containing Splenda.

There is an interesting history, as far as “Natural” Family Planning goes, about how in ancient times Church Fathers were skeptical at best of the appropriateness of sex during the infertile period, then people came to allow sex during the infertile period despite the fact that it was shooting blanks, and then the West came to a point where priests hearing confessions were to insinuate “Natural” Family Planning to couples who were using more perverse methods to have sex without children, and finally the adulation that can say that Natural Family Planning is the gateway to the culture of life.

Contraception and Splenda are twins, and with Splenda I include not only other artificial sweeteners, but so-called “natural” sweeteners like Agave and Stevia which happen not to be manufactured in a chemical factory, but whose entire use is to do Splenda’s job of adding sweetness without calories. What exists in the case of contraception and Splenda alike is neutralizing a greater good in order to have as much of the pleasure associated with that good as possible. It says that the primary purpose of food and sex, important enough to justify neutralizing other effects as a detriment to focusing on the pleasure, is to be a pleasure delivery system.

About pleasure delivery systems, I would refer you to:

The Pleasure-Pain Syndrome

The dialectic between pleasure and pain is a recurrent theme among the Fathers and it is something of a philosophical error to pursue pleasure and hope that no pain will come. If you want to see real discontent with one’s sexual experiences, look for those who are using Viagra and its kin to try to find the ultimate sexual thrill. What they will find is that sex becomes a disappointment: first sex without drugged enhancement becomes underwhelming, and then Viagra or Cialis fail to deliver the evanescent ultimate sexual thrill.

The Damned Backswing
There is a phenomenon where something appears to offer great improvements, but it has a damned backswing. For one example in economics, in the 1950’s the U.S. had an unprecedentedly high standard of living (meaning more appliances in houses—not really the best measure of living), and for decades it just seemed like, It’s Getting Better All the Time. But now the U.S. economy is being destroyed, and even with another regime, we would still have all the debts we incurred making things better all the time.

Another instance of the damned backswing is how medieval belief in the rationality of God gave rise to the heroic labors of science under the belief that a rational God would create a rational and ordered world, which gave way to modernism and positivism which might as well have put science on steroids, which in turn is giving way to a postmodernism and subjectivism that, even as some of it arose from the philosophy of science, is fundamentally toxic to objectivist science.

I invite you to read more about the damned backswing.

Email, texting, and IM’s
“Email is for old people,” one youngster said, and email is largely the wave of the past. Like landlines and desktop computers, it will probably not disappear completely; it will probably remain the communication channel of corporate notifications and organizational official remarks. But social communication via email is the wave of the past: an article in A List Apart said that the website had originated as a mailing list, and added, “Kids, go ask your parents.”

When texting first caught on it was neither on the iPhone nor the Droid. If you wanted to say, “hello”, you would probably have to key in, “4433555555666”. But even then texting was a sticky technology, and so far it is the only common technology I know of that is illegal to ue when driving. It draws attention in a dangerous way and is treated like alcohol in terms of something that can impair driving. It is a strong technological drug.

The marketing proposition of texting is an intravenous drip of noise. IM’s are similar, if not always as mobile as cell phones, and email is a weaker form of the drug that youth are abandoning for a stronger version. Now, it should also be said that they are useful, and the proper ascetical use is to take advantage of them because they are useful (or not; I have a phone plan without texting and I text rarely enough that the default $.20 per text makes sense and is probably cheaper than the basic plan.

Fasting and fasting from technologies

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

The healing of this comes in partly by eating, in the Holy Mysteries where we eat from the Tree of Life. But this is no imitation of Eve’s sin, or Adam’s. They lived in the garden of paradise, and there is no record of them fasting before taking from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Before we take communion, we answer the question “Where are you?”, the question in which God invited Adam and Eve to come clean and expose their wound to the Healer, and we prepare for confession and answer the question Adam and Eve dodged: “Where are you?” We do not live in a garden of delights, but our own surroundings, and we turn away from sensual pleasures. Adam and Eve hid from God; we pray to him and do not stop praying because of our own sordid unworthiness. And, having prepared, we eat from the Tree of Life.

You shall not surely die. and Your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods, are some of the oldest marketing propositions, but they are remarkably alive in the realm of technology. Witness the triumph of hope over experience in the artificial intelligence project. Witness a society like the meticulously groomed technology of a Buddha who saw an old man, a sick man, and a dead man, and wondered whatever on earth they can mean. Mortality may be as total in our generation as any other, but we’ve done a good job of hiding it. Perhaps doctors might feel inadequate in the face of real suffering, but modern medicine can do a lot. In many areas of the third world, it might be painful, but it is not surprising to play with a child who was doing well two weeks ago and be told that he is dead. Death is not something one expects in homes; it is out of sight and half out of mind in hospitals and hospices. All of this is to say that those of us in the first world have a death-denying society, and if we have not ultimately falsified “You will surely die,” we’ve done a pretty good job of being in denial about it. And “You shall be as gods” is the marketing proposition of luxury cars, computers, smartphones, and ten thousand other propositions. My aunt on discovering Facebook said, “It feels like I am walking on water,” and Facebook offers at least a tacit marketing proposition of, “You shall be as gods.” Information technology in general, and particularly the more “sexy” forms of information technology, offer the marketing proposition of, Your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods.

There was one time as an undergraduate when I tried to see what it would be like to live as blind for a day, and so I was blindfolded and had a fascinating day which I wrote up for my psychology class. Now I would be careful in saying based on one day’s experience would let me understand the life experience of being blind, any more than a few days spent in Ontario entitle me to say that I understand Canadian culture. However, the experience was an interesting challenge, and it had something to do with fasting, even if it was more adventuresome than fasting normally is.

Fasting is first and foremost fasting from food, but there are other things one can fast from. Some Orthodox bid Facebook a temporary farewell for fasting seasons. On fasting days, we are bidden to cut back on sensory pleasures, which can mean cutting back on luxury technologies that give us pleasure.

I’m not sure how much fastiing from technologies should form a part of one’s rule; it is commonplace to discuss with one’s priest or spiritual father how one will keep one’s fast, and with what oikonomia if such is needed. But one of the rules of fasting is that one attempts a greater and greater challenge. Far from beiing a spiritual backwater, Lent is the central season of the Christian year. And so I will present twenty-three things you might do to fast from technology. (Or might not.)

  1. Sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor. (Monks mention sleeping on the floor as a discipline; the attenuated fast of sleeping on a sleepiing bag on the floor may help.)
  2. Leave your smartphone at home for a day.
  3. Leave all consumer electronics at home for a day.
  4. Only check for email, Facebook, etc. once every hour, instead of all the time.
  5. Don’t check your email; just write letters with a pen or lead pencil.
  6. Camp out in your back yard.
  7. Read a book outside, using sunscreen if appropriate.
  8. Organize some outdoor activity with your friennds or family.
  9. Don’t use your computer or smartphone while you are preparing for the Eucharist.
  10. Basic: If you have games and entertainment apps or application, don’t play them when you are fasting.
  11. Harder: If you have games and entertainment applications, delete them.
  12. Basic: Spend an hour outside with a book or an ebook Kindle, doing nothing but read and observe the trees, the wind. and the grass growing. (You are welcome to use my ebooks.)
  13. Harder: Spend an hour outide, but not with a book, just observing the trees, the wind, and the grass growing.
  14. Don’t use your car for a week. It’s OK to get rides, and it may be a pleasure speaking with your friends, but experience being, in part, dependent, and you may be surprised how some of your driving suddenly seems superflous.
  15. Shut off power for an hour. If you keep your fridge and freezer doors shut, you shouldn’t lose food, and sometimes power loss has meant adventure.
  16. Turn off your computer’s network access but still see what you can do with it for a day. (The Luddite’s Guide to Technology is written largely on a computer that doesn’t have internet access forr the majority of the time it is being used to write this.)
  17. Especially if you have a beautiful screensaver, set your computer to just display a blank screen, and have a single color or otherwise dull wallpaper for a time, perhaps for a fasting season.
  18. Switch your computer’s resolution to 800×600 or the tiniest it can go. That will take away much of its status as a luxury.
  19. Make a list of interesting things to do that do not involve a computer, tablet, or smartphone.
  20. Do some of the vibrant things on the list that do not involve a computer, tablet, or smartphone.
  21. Use computers or whatever other technologies, not for what you can get from them, but what you can give through them.
  22. Bear a little more pain. If pain is bearable, don’t take pain medication. If you can deal with a slightly warmer room in the summer, turn down the air conditioning. If you can deal with a slightly cooler room in the winter, turn down the heat.
  23. Visit a monastery.A monastery is not thought of in terms of being Luddite, but monasteries tend to be lower in level than technology, and a good monastery shows the vibrancy of life not centered about technology. And this suggestion is different.All the other suggestions say, “I would suggest.” The suggestion about the monastery says, “God has given.”
Food
There is some ambiguity, or better yet a double meaning, when the New Testament uses the term “breaking bread.” On one level, breaking bread means a shared meal around the table. On another, it means celebrating the Eucharist.

You can say that there is one sacrament, or that there are seven, or that there are a million sacraments. A great many things in life have a sacramental dimension, even if the man on the street would not consider these to be religious matters. There is something sacramental about friendship. And there is something sacramental about a meal around a table. Even if the sacramental character of a meal is vanishing.

Proverbs said, “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it.” Today one may draw forth an implication: “Better is a dinner of really bad fast food than the most exquisite Weston A. Price Foundation meal where there is hatred.”

However, there are ways that the sacramental character of meals is falling away. Many foods are not intended to be eaten around a table with family or friends: think of microwave dinners and the 100 calorie snack pack. Read Nourishing Traditions, which tells how far our industrial diet has diverged from meals that taste delicious precisely because they are nutritionally solid.

But besides the plastic-like foods of the industrial diet, there is another concern with munching or inhaling. The Holy Eucharist can legitimately be served, in an extreme case, with plastic-like foods. For that matter it is normal for it to be made with white flour, and white flour is high on the list of foods that should be limited. And it would be a mistake to insist on whole wheat flour because it is overall healthier. But with extreme exceptions such as grave illness, the Holy Mysteries are not to be consumed by oneself off in a corner. They are part of the unhurried unfolding of the Divine Liturgy, which ideally unfolds rather naturally into the unhurried unfolding of a common meal.

Both eating snacks continually to always have the pleasure of the palate, and the solo meal that is inhaled so it can be crammed into an over-busy schedule, fall short of the (broadly) sacramental quality of a common meal around a table.

In Alaska there are many people but not so many priests, and therefore many parishes rarely celebrate the Divine Liturgy. And a bishop, giving advice, gave two pastoral directions to the faithful: first that they should pray together, and second that they should eat together.

Let us try harder to eat with others.

“Forms of life” (Wittgenstein)

I’m not Wittgenstein’s biggest fan, and I wince when people speak of “after Wittgenstein.” But his concept of “forms of life” is relevant here. A form of life is something that is structural to how people live, and normally tacit; a professor was searching for an example of “forms of life” to give to the class, and after a couple of minutes of silence I said, “You are trying to a difficult thing. You are trying to find something that is basically tacit and not consciously realized, but that people will recognize once it is pointed out. I guess that you have thought of a few possibilities and rejected them because they fall around on one of those criteria.” And he searched a bit more, and gave the example of, “It used to be that procreation was seen as necessary for human flourishing. Now people think that limiting procreation is seen as necessary for human flourishing.”

Arguably a Luddite’s Guide to Forms of Life would be more useful than The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, but in the discussion of different technologies there is always a concern for what Wittgenstein would call forms of life. It is possible to turn on the television for 10 minutes a day for weather information, and that retains the same form of life as not using television at all. Watching television for hours a day is, and shapes, a distinct form of life. And in some sense the basic question addressed in this work is not, “What technologies are you using?” but “What forms of life do you have given your technology usage?

Future shock

Some people have said that Americans are in a constant state of “future shock,” “future shock” being understood by analogy to “culture shock”, which is a profoundly challenging state when you are in a culture that tramples assumptions you didn’t know you had. Not all of future shock is in relation to technology, but much of it is.

We think of a “rising standard of living,” meaning more unfamiliar possessions in many cases, and even if the economy itself is not a rising standard of living now, we have accepted the train of new technology adoption as progress, but there has been something in us that says, “This is choking something human.” And in a sense this has always been right, the older technologies as the new, for movies as much as augmented reality.

One author said, “The future is here. It’s just unevenly distributed.”

GPS

GPS is in general an example of something that has a double effect. Traditionally advertising in an overall effect helps people to covet what a company has to offer, and the behavior stimulated by the advertising is to advance the company’s interest, even though the company never says “We are making this so that we will acquire more money or market share.” As in How to Win Friends and Influence People, the prime actor is attempting to pursue his or her own interests, while it is presented entirely as being to the advantage of the other party on the other party’s terms.

Apple didn’t just change the game by making the first smartphone done right, in which regard the iPhone is commonly considered more significant than the Macintosh. The company that invented and still sells the Macintosh has established something more important than owning a Macintosh: owning an iPhone or iPad, which unlike the Macintosh generate a steady subscription income stream. The price for my MacBook was 100% up front: now that I’ve made the one-time purchase, I do not have any further financial obligations that will filter to Apple. My iPhone, on the other hand, has a subscription and contract; part of my hefty baseline phone bill goes to Apple. And if I were to purchase an iPad, I would have two subscriptions. (The main reason I have not seriously moved towards buying an iPad is not what I would pay up front; it is adding another subscription.)

The GPS also has a double effect. It is what science fiction writers called a “tracking device.” Now it is a terrifically useful traffic advice; part of the marketing proposition offered for Sila on the iPhone 4 S is that it makes terrifically resourceful use of a GPS. (“I feel like a latte.”—and it is the GPS that Sila uses to find nearby locations where one might find a latte.) On a more pedestrian level GPS for driving(or biking, or walking) has become so entrenched that people don’t know what they’d do without it to reach unfamiliar locations. I have never heard someone question the utility of a GPS for this or other purposes, and I’ve heard of interesting-sounding hobbies like geocaching where you navigate to specified coordinates and then search out and find some hidden attraction in the area indicated by the GPS.

But for all of these things, GPSes, as well as cell phones in general, provide one more means for Big Brother (and possibly more than one Big Brother) to know exactly where you go, when you go there, what the patterns are, and other things where Big Brotherwill keep closer tabs on your whereabouts and activities than your spouse or parent. IBM published a book on “Why IBM for Big Data?” and made it very clear that Big Brother analysis of data isn’t just for No Such Agency. It’s also for the corporate world. One author told the seemingly attractive story of having made repeated negative posts on his FaceBook wall, slamming an airline after repeated problems, and the airline reached out to him and gave him a service upgrade. This was presented in the most positive light, but it was very clear that business were being invited to use IBM’s expertise to do Big Data Big Brother analysis on social networks.

Guns and modern weapons (for fantasy swords, see Teleporters)

Let me give a perhaps controversial preamble before directly talking about weapons.

I have spoken both with NRA types and anti-gun advocates, and there is a telling difference. The anti-gun advocates point to hard-hitting, emotional news stories where a walking arsenal opens fire in a school and kills many people. The NRA types may briefly talk about selective truth-telling and mention an incident where someone walked into a church armed to kill a bear, and an off-duty security guard who was carrying a gun legally and with the explicit permission of church leadership, “stopped the crime.” But that is something of a tit-for-tat sideline to the main NRA argument, which is to appeal to statistical studies that show that legal gun ownership does not increase crime.

I have a strong math background and I am usually wary of statistics. However, I find it very striking that anti-gun advocates have never in my experience appealed to statistics to show that legal gun ownership increases crome, but only give hard-hitting emotional images, while the bread-and-butter of NRA argument is an appeal to research and statistics. I’ve never personally investigated those statistics, but there is something suspicious and fishy when only one side of a debate seriously appeals to research and statistics.

With that preamble mentioned, learning to really use a gun is a form of discipline and stillness, and I tried to capture it in the telescope scene in Within the Steel Orb. Hunting can be a way to be close to your food, and I approve of hunting for meat but not hunting for taxidermy. However, sacramental shopping for weapons is as bad as any other sacramental shopping. I would tentatively say that if you want skill with a weapon, and will train to the point that it becomes something of a spiritual discipline, then buying a weapon makes sense. If you want to buy a gun because all the cool guys in action-adventure movies have one, or you are not thinking of the work it takes to handle a gun safely and use it accurately, I would question the appropriateness of buying a gun.

(Owning a gun because that is part of your culture is one thing; buying a gun because they are glamorized in movies is another thing entirely.)

And that is without investigating the question of whether it is appropriate to use violence in the first place. St. George the soldier and the passion-bearers Ss. Boris and Gleb are both honored by the Church; yet the better path is the one set forth in the Sermon on the Mount.

Heating and air conditioning
A college roommate commented that middle class Americans had basically as much creature comforts were available. Not that they can buy everything one would want; but there is a certain point beyond which money cannot purchase necessities, only luxuries, and then a certain point after that where money cannot purchase luxuries, only status symbols, and a point beyond that where money cannot purchase any more meaningful status symbols, only power. And middle class Americans may well not be able to purchase every status symbol they want, but really there is not much more creature comfort that would come with ten times one’s salary.

Heating and air conditioning are one such area, and monastics wear pretty much the same clothing in summer and winter. One Athonite monk talked about a story about how several Russian sailors made a fire and stood close, and still did not feel warm, while islanders who were barely clad stood some distance off and were wincing because of the heat. We lose some degree of spiritual strength if we insist on having cool buildings in the summer and warm buildings in the winter. Even just cutting back a bit, so that buildings are warm but not hot in the summer and cool but not cold in the winter would constitute a spiritual victory. Usually this sort of thing is argued for environmental reasons; I am not making the argument that the lowered utility usage is good for the environment but that the lowered utility usage is constructive and, in the old phrase, “builds character.” Indoor tracks exist, but in the summer I see bicyclists and runners exercising hard in the summer. These people are not super-heroes, and exercising in the heat really does not seem to be much of a deterrent to getting one’s artificially added exercise. The human body and spirit together are capable of a great deal more sturdiness, when instead of always seeking comfort we learn that we can function perfectly well after adjusting to discomfort. (And this is not just with heating and air conditioning; it is true with a lot of things.)

Hospitality

There is an ancient code of hospitality that recently has been influenced by consumer culture. What commercial marketing does, or at least did, to make a gesture of friendship and welcome was by offering a selection of choices carefully fitted to the demographics being targeted. Starbucks not only established that you could market an experience that would command a much higher price than a bottomless cup of coffee at a regular diner; they sold not one coffee but many coffees. You had a broad selection of consumer choices. Starbucks was doubtlessly more successful than some frozen yoghurt places I visited in grad school, which offered something like fifty or more flavors and varieties of yoghurts and had staff who were mystified when customers said, “But I just want some frozen yoghurt!” As a nuance, Starbucks offers guidance and suggestions for the undecided—and a large number of choices for the decided.

And in light of the hospitality industry, hosts offer guests choices and sometimes mystify them by the offering: a guest, according to the older (unwritten) code, did not have the responsibility of choosing what would be offered. Now perhaps I need to clarify, or maybe don’t need to clarify, that if you have a severe peanut allergy and your host offers you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you are not duty bound to accept it. But even then, social graces come to play. I remembered one time, at a feast although not strictly a host/guest relationship, when I offered a friend a glass of port and he kindly reminded me that he was a recovering alcoholic. I apologized profusely, and he stopped me and said, “I appreciate the offer, I just can’t drink it.” So then I offered him something he could consume, and he took it and thanked me for it. Social graces apply.

But this is something of a footnote. There is a story of a staretz or monastic spiritual father who was going with one of a monk’s disciples, and they visited a monastery that was feasting with bread, and the elder and disciple both shared in that informal communion, and then the two of them resumed their journey. The disciple asked the master if he could drink water, and to his astonishment was told no. The master, in answering his question, said, “That was love’s bread. But let us keep the fast.” The Fathers are very clear: as one priest said, “Hospitality trumps fasting.” And the assumption there is that fasting is important enough. This piece originated with the title, “Fasting from technologies.” But hospitality is even more important.

The ancient rule of hospitality, although this is never thought of in these terms with today’s understanding of authority, is that the host has a profound authority over the guest which the guest will obey, even to the point of trumping fasting. But this is not what we may think of as despotism: the entire purpose and focus of the host’s role in hospitality is to extend the warmest welcome to the guest. I remember one time when a friend visited from Nigeria, and although I set some choices before them, when I said, “We can do A, B, and C; I would recommend B,” in keeping with hospitality they seemed to always treat my pick as tacit authority and went along with me. It was a wonderful visit; my friend made a comment about being treated like royalty, but my thought was not about how well I was treating them. My thought was that this would probably be the last time I saw my friend and her immediate family face to face, and I’d better make it count.

I might comment that this is tied to our inability today to understand a husband’s authority over his wife and the wife’s submission. The rôle is somewhat like that of host and guest. A liberal source speaking on the Ephesians haustafel as it dealt with husbands and wives said that it did not portray marriage in terms of the husband’s authority, while a conservative source understood authority at a deeper level: it said that nowhere here (or anywhere else in the Bible) are husbands urged, “Exercise your authority!”, but the text that says, Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord, also says, Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church, and gave himself for it. If the wife’s role is to submit herself to her husband as to the Lord, the husband’s role is to give up his life as Christ was crucified for the Church.

And all of this seems dead to us as we have grown dead to it. The role of hospitality, including authority, is infinitely less important than marriage, yet we see a husband’s authority as external and domineering, when it is less external than the host’s authority. And I am drawn to memories of visiting one very traditional couple where both of them exuded freedom and comfort and dealing with them felt like a foot sliding into a well-fitting shoe. But if we see a husband having authority over a wife as a foreign imposition and nothing like the implicit authority we do not even recognize between host and guest (where the host’s authority consists in making every decision to show as much kindness as possible to the guest), this is not a defect in marriage but in our deafened ears.

An intravenous drip of noise

“Silence is the language of the age to come,” as others have said. Hesychasm is a discipline of stillness, of silence, of Be still and know that I am God. Whether spiritual silence is greater than other virtues, I do not wish to treat here; suffice it to say that all virtues are great health, and all vices are serious spiritual diseases, and all are worth attention.

There are a number of technologies whose marketing proposition is as a noise delivery system. The humble radio offers itself as a source of noise. True, there are other uses, such as listening to a news radio station for weather and traffic, but just having a radio on in the background is noise. Other sources of noise include television, iPods, smartphones, the web, and top sites like FaceBook, Google Plus, and the like. Right use of these tends to be going in and out for a task, even if the task lasts five hours, versus having noise as a drone in the background.

In terms of social appropriateness, there is such a thing as politely handling something that is basically rude. For one example, I was visiting a friend’s house and wanted to fix his printer, and apologetically said I was going to call my brother and called him to ask his opinion as a computer troubleshooter. I handled the call as something that was basically rude even though the express purpose was to help with something he had asked about and it was a short call. And it was handled politely because I handled it as something that is basically rude. And other people I know with good manners do sometimes make or receive a cell phone call when you otherwise have their attention, but they do so apologetically, which suggests that just ignoring the other person and making a phone call is rude. In other words, they politely handle the interruption by treating it as something that is basically rude, even if (as in the case I mentioned) the entire intention of the call was to help me help the friend I was visiting.

Something like this applies to our use of technology. There are things that are entirely appropriate if we handle them as something that is basically “rude.” Or, perhaps, “noisy.” The equivalent of making a long phone call when you are with someone, without offering any apology or otherwise treating it as basically rude, is laying the reins on the horse’s neck and allowing technologies to function as a noise delivery system. And what we need is to unplug our intravenous drip of noise.

Silence can be uncomfortable if you are used to the ersatz companionship of noise. If you have been in a building and step outside into the sunlight at noon, you may be dazzled. Most spiritual discicplines stretch us into something that is uncomfortable at first: the point is to be stretched more each time. The Philokalia talks about how people hold on to sin because they think it adorns them: to this may be added that after you repent and fear a shining part of you may be lost forever, you realize, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell.” Silence is like this; we want a noise delivery system as a drone, and once we begin to get used to its absence, there is a deeper joy. It may take time; it takes something like a year for a recovering alcoholic’s brain chemistry to reset. But once we have got rid of the drug, once we have repented and sought to bear fruit worthy of repentance, we may find ourselves (to adapt the title of a book) blindsided by joy.

Killing time
“You cannot kill time,” the saying goes, “without injuring eternity.”

At least one breakdown of mobile users has said that they fall into three groups: “Urgent now,” people who have some degree of emergency and need directions, advice, contingency plans, and the like, “Repeat now,” people who are monitoring information like whether or how their stocks are doing, and “Bored now,” people who are caught and have some time to kill, and look for a diversion.

“Bored now” use of cell phones is simply not constructive spiritually; it offers a virtual escape for the here and now God has given us, and it is the exact opposite of the saying, “Your cell [as a monk] will teach you everything you need to know.”

The lead pencil

The lead pencil is a symbol of an alternative to an overly technologized world; one organization of people who have made a conscious decision to avoid the encroachment of technology chose the lead pencil as their emblem and formed the Lead Pencil Club.

But the lead pencil is a work of technology, and one that 99% of humans who ever lived have never seen any more than a cuneiform stylus or any other writing implement. And even such a seemingly humble technology comes about in an impressive fashion; one economist wrote a compelling case that only God knows how pencils are made.

Sitting down and writing letters is a valuable discipline, but the norm that has been lived by 99% of the human race is oral culture; anthropologists have increasingly realized that the opposite of “written” culture is not “illiterate” culture but “oral” culture. And the weapon that slides through the chink in oral culture’s armor is the writing implement, such as the lead pencil. It is not the computer, but the lead pencil and its kin, that serve as a disease vector to destroy age-old orality of culture.

This is not to say that you can’t try to use computer keyboards less and pens and pencils more. But understand that you’re not turning the clock all the way back by writing handwritten letters, however commendable the love in handwritten letters may be. The lead pencil is a technology and to those societies that embrace it, it is the death knell to an old way.

The long tail

The long tail can be your best friend, or an insidious enemy.

Let me briefly outline the long tail. A retail bookstore needs to sell one copy of a book in a year’s time, or else it is losing them money: shelf space is an expensive commodity. And all of this leads to a form of implicit censorship, not because bookstores want to stamp out certain books, but because if it’s not a quick seller or a safe bet it’s a liability.

By contrast, Amazon has large volumes of shelf space; their warehouses might comfortably store a city. And it costs them some money to acquire books, but the price of keeping books available is insignificant compared to a brick-and-mortar bookstore. And what that means, and not just on Amazon, that the economic censorship is lifted. People used to wonder who would be able to fill hundreds or more cable channels; now Youtube would be hard pressed to reduce itself down to a thousand channels. And so a much larger portion of Amazon’s profits comes from having an enormous inventory of items that occasionally make a sale.

There is specialization implicit in the long tail; if you want to know how to make something, chances are pretty good that some blog explains how. And the proper ascetical use of technology, or Luddite if you prefer, uses things differently than the mainstream. Nobody in a phone store is going to tell you that an intravenous drip of noise in terms of text messages that go on even when you are trying to sleep does not make you happier than if you use texting when there is a special need. Some of the best resources you will find for ascetical use of technology are to be found in the long tail.

But there is something else that comes with it. The temptation is to be off in our own customized worlds, with everything around our interests. And that is a form of spiritual poverty. Part of an age-old ascesis has been learning how to deal with the people who are around you, localist style, instead of pursuing your own nooks and crannies. The monoculture of retail stores in America was first a problem, not because it had no long tail effects, but because it supplanted at least an implicit localism. Local cultures gave way to plastic commercial culture.

And we can use the long tail to our profit, if we don’t lay the reins on the horse’s neck. Shopping on the Internet for things that won’t be local stores is one thing; shopping on the Internet so you don’t have to get out of your pyjamas is another.

The long tail can be a gold mine, but it is subject to the damned backswing.

Marketing proposition

There was one CIA official who said, being interviewed by a journalist, that he would never knowingly hire someone who was attracted by the romance of cloak and dagger work. Now this was quite obviously someone who did want to hire people who would be a good fit, but someone who wants to join a cloak and dagger agency as a gateway to have life feel like a James Bond movie is off on the wrong foot.

I doubt if any major intelligence agency has promoted James Bond movies because they think it’s a good way to draw the right recruits, but James Bond movies function as highly effective advertisements. They may not lead people to be able to stick out the daily grind and level of bureaucracy in a three-letter government agency, but they give a strong sense that spying is cool, and cool in a way that probably has only the most accidental resemblance to life in one of those bureaucratic organizations.

Cop shows likewise show police officers pulling their guns out much more than in real life; it is a frequent occurrence on the cop shows I’ve seen, while the last figure I heard was that real, live, flesh and blood police officers draw a gun on the job (apart from training) once every few years if even that.

Advertisement is produced as a service to the companies whose goods and services are being advertised, but the real message they sell is if anything further from the truth than the “accidental advertisement” of James Bond movies advertising a romantic version of bureaucratic intelligence agencies and cop shows making a dramaticization that effectively ignores the day-to-day work of police officers because it just doesn’t make good drama. (What would happen to the ratings of a cop show if they accurately portrayed the proportion of time that police officers spend filling out paperwork?)

Advertising sells claims that are further out. Two examples discussed in a class showed a family that moved, and what was juxtaposed as cementing this bonding time was a vacuum cleaner. In another commercial, racial harmony was achieved by eating a hamburger. The commercials that stuck with me from childhood were in one case kids jumping around with rotating camera angles because they were wearing a particular brand of shoes: When I asked my parents for those shoes, they explained to me that the commercial was made to make me want them, and I took a marker and colored the patterns on the bottom of the shoes on the add on to my shoes. Another one showed a game of Laser Tag that was end to end acrobatics. Now I have never played Laser Tag, and I get the impression people like it, but I doubt that its gear confers the ability to do theatrically delivered acrobatics.

Marketing is usually more subtle and seductive than I have portrayed it here. The vacuum cleaner did not offer any words connecting the appliance with family connectedness; it’s just that this family was going through a major experience and the vacuum cleaner appeared with perfect timing just at the center of that memory. The marketing message that is portrayed is seductive and false, and it is never the right basis to judge the product on. The product may be the right thing to buy and it may well be worth buying, but only after one has rejected the mystique so masterfully built up in the marketing proposition. If it is right for me to study ninjutsu, it will only be right after I have rejected the ninja mystique, something which the nearest dojo does in fact do: they refer to the martial art they teach as “toshindo”, nor “ninjutsu”, even though they refer to essentially the same thing in Japanese.

I have said earlier, or rather repeated, the words, “Hang the fashions. Buy only what you need.” They bear repeating, but is there anything else to add? I would add three things:

  1. Reject sacramental shopping.
  2. Reject the mystique advertising has sold you this product on.
  3. Wait until your heart becomes clear about what is the best choice, and then make the best choice.

The best choice, in the third world, may be to buy a Mercedes-Benz instead of a Ford because you cannot afford to replace a Ford in six years.

But take care of the spiritual housecleaning first.

Martial arts
There have been two times in my life that I have studied martial arts, and both of them have been times of exceptional spiritual dryness. I have not felt any particular dryness when learning how to use a bow and arrow—or a .22—but there is something different about at least internal Asian martial arts. Practicing them, like Orthodoxy, is walking along a way. And it would seem somewhat confused to try to pursue one of these ways along with the Orthodox way.

I am careful of declaring this in the absolute; the literature is ambivalent but there are soldiers who bear the cross of St. George, and many of them have training in Asian martial arts. That looks to me grey, as outlined in the timeless way of relating.

I am tempted to train in ninjutsu: partly for technique, partly because the whole of the training includes stealth, and partly for practical self-defense. But I am treating that desire as a temptation, on the understanding that God can impress things on my conscience if he wants me to enter training.

MMO’s (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, like World of Warcraft)

“Do You Want to Date My Avatar?” was designed and created as a viral video, and something about it really stuck.

There are common threads between many of the things there, and an MMO is a cross between the MUDs I played in high school, and SecondLife. The MUDs were handled from pure text, leaving imagery in the player’s imagination; MMO’s provide their own imagery. Another form of escape.

Money and financial instruments

The Fathers commenting on St. Job also illustrate another principle of such wealth as existed then. St. Job is reported as having thousands of herd animals and thousands of beasts of burden, the wealthiest of the men of the East. But there are somewhat pointed remarks that wealthy Job is not reported to possess gold or silver. His wealth was productive wealth, living wealth, not a vault of dead metal coins. In modern terms he did not live off an endowment of stocks and bonds, but owned and ran a productive business.

Endowments are a means of being independently wealthy, and this ultimately means “independent from God.” Now the wealthiest are really as dependent on God as the poorest; let us remember the parable of the rich fool, in which a man congratulates himself for amassing everything he would need and that night the angels demanded his soul from him. The ending is much sadder than St. Job’s story.

Those of us in the world usually possess some amount of money, but there is something that makes me uncomfortable about the stock market overall, even moreso for the more abstract financial instruments. What one attempts to do is gain the most money from one’s existing money as much as possible, given the amount of risk you want and possibly including such outliers as ethical index funds which only index stocks deemed to meet an ethical standard. The question I have is, “What are we producing for what we get out of the stock market?” Working in a job delivers tangible value, or at least can. Investing in the stock market may be connected with helping businesses to function, but more and more abstract forms of wealth have the foul smell that heralds the coming of the damned backswing.

I would suggest as a right use of wealth acquiring tools that help you work, and being generous even or especially if money is tight. And explicitly depending on God.

Movies
When movies had arrived on the scene and were starting to have a societal effect, at least one Luddite portrayed a character moving from one movie to another in escapism. The premise may seem quaint now, but a little bit of that keeps on happening with new technologies.

One fellow parishioner talked about how in Japan, anime shows aired with a certain animation technique, and all of the sudden emergency rooms were asking why they were being inundated with people having epileptic seizures. And when they saw the connection, Japan stopped cold in its use of that animation technique. He said that that underscored to him the power of television and movies.

I don’t quite agree with him, any more than I would agree with using findings that extremely high levels of artificial light—fluorescent or incandescent‐cause problems, and we should therefore be very wary of lighting. For most sedentary people, even with artificial light (fluorescent or incandescent), the level of exposure to light is materially lower than natural exposure to the sun, and people who spend their time indoors tend to see less light (significantly less light) than people living outdoors. I didn’t accept his conclusion, but he followed with another insight that I can less easily contest.

He asked if I saw movies infrequently (we had not discussed the topic, but he knew me well enough to guess where I might stand), and I told him that I usually don’t watch movies. He asked me if I had ever observed that an hour after seeing a movie, I felt depressed. I had not made any connection of that sort, even if now it seems predictable from the pleasure-pain syndrome. And now I very rarely see movies, precisely because the special effects and other such tweaks are stronger than I am accustomed to seeing; they go like a stiff drink to the head of the teetotaler. And on this score I would rather not be the person who has a stiff drink every so often, and whose body tolerates alcohol better, but the person whose system hasn’t had to make such an adjustment, an adjustment that includes losses. The little pleasures of life are lost on someone used to a rising standard of special effects, and the little pleasures of life are more wholesome than special effects.

Multitasking
As I discussed in Religion And Science Is Not Just Intelligent Design Vs. Evolution, one of the forms of name-dropping in academic theology is to misuse “a term from science”: the claim to represent “a term from science” is endemic in academic theology, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve read “a term from science” that was used correctly.

One book said it was going to introduce “a term from computer science,” toggling, which meant switching rapidly between several applications. The moral of this story was that we should switch rapidly between multiple activities in our daily lives.

What I would have said earlier is, “While that moral might be true, what it is not is a lesson from computer science.” What I would say now is, “Never mind if that is a lesson from computer science. The moral is fundamentally flawed.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:22, Christ says, “If your eye be,” and then a word that doesn’t come across in translation very well. It is rendered “healthy” (NIV), “clear” (NASB), “sound” (RSV), and “good” (NKJV, NLT), Only the King James Version properly renders the primary sense of haplous as “single.” This may be a less user-friendly transltion but it captures something the other translations miss. The context of the discussion of the eye as the lamp of the body is about choosing whether to have a single focus in serving God, or try to multitask between serving God and money. Haplous does have “healthy”, “clear”, “sound”, and “good” as secondary meanings, but the primary meaning is the less accessible one that I have only found in the Greek and in the King James. If the eye is the lamp of the body, and it is important that the eye be single, then by extension the whole person is to be single, and as one aspect of this single eye, give a whole and single attention to one thing at a time. Now this is not necessarily a central, foreground focus in the Sermon on the Mount, but as its logic unfurls, even as spiritual silence unfurls, a single eye gives its whole and undivided attention to one thing at a time. (And study after study has shown that increased productivity through multitasking is an illusion; divided attention is divided attention and hurts all manner of actions.)

Nutriceuticals

The term “nutriceuticals is itself an ambiguous and ambivalent term.

On the one hand, ‘nutriceuticals’ can refer to the diet advanced by the Nourishing Traditions school, and while nutrition should not be considered on its own without reference to the big picture of exercise, work, light, almsgiving, fasting, prayer, and the Holy Mysteries, there is something to the recipes and type of diet advocated in Nourishing Traditions.

There are also the different, and differently excellent, nutriceuticals of a company that combines absolutely top-notch supplements with a pushy, multi-lev—I mean, a unique opportunity to become CEO of your own company. (I am formally a distributor; please contact me if you want to be a customer or possibly distributor without being pushed to drink Kool-Aid.)

However, it seems that everybody selling certain things wants to be selling “nutriceuticals”, and there are people selling “synthetic testosterone” as a “nutriceutical.” Friends, I really hope that the offer of “synthetic testosterone” is false advertising, because if it is false advertising they are probably delivering a better product than if it’s truth in advertising. Testosterone is a steroid, the chief of the anabolic steroids used to get muscles so big they gross girls out. Now testosterone does have legitimate medical uses, but using steroids to build disgustingly huge muscles can use up to a hundred times what legitimate medical use prescribes, and it does really nasty things to body, mind, and soul.

I get the impression that most things sold as nutriceuticals are shady; to authorities, illegal nutriceuticals are probably like a water balloon, where you step on it one place and it just slides over a bit to the side. It used to be that there were perhaps a dozen major street drugs on the scene; now there is a vast bazaaar where some “nutriceuticals” are squeaky-clean, and some “neutriceuticals” are similar in effect to illegal narcotics but not technically illegal, and some of them are selling testosterone without medical supervision or worse.

So buyer beware. There’s some good stuff out there (I haven’t talked about goji berries), but if you want a healthy diet to go with healthy living, read and cook from Nourishing Traditions, and if you want another kind of good nutriceutical supplement without being pushed to drink Kool-Aid, contact me and you might be my first customer. (No, I don’t have dreams of striking it rich through, um, “my business.” I am satisfied enough with my job.)

Old Technologies

There is a Foxtrot cartoon where the mother is standing outside with Jason and saying something like, “This is how you throw a frisbee.”—”This is how you play catch.”—”This is how you play tennis.” And Jason answers, “Enough with the historical re-enactments. I want to play some games!” (And there is another time when he and Marcus had been thrown out of the house and were looking at a frisbee and saying, “This is a scratch on the Linux RAID drive.”)

Old technologies are usually things that caused changes and moved people away from what might be called more natural forms of life. However, they represent a lower drug dose than newer technologies. The humble lead pencil may be historically be the kind of technology that converted cultures away from being oral; however, a handwritten letter to an old friend is profoundly different from a stream of texts. And in my technological soliloquoy above, two out of the three technologies I mentioned represent an old tradition. Being familiar with some of the best of older technologies may be helpful, and in general they do not have the layers on layers of fragile character that have been baked into new technologies. A Swiss Army Knife is still a portable toolchest if something messes up with the Internet. Bicycles are not a replacement for cars—you can’t go as fast or as far, or stock up on groceries—but many people prefer bicycles when they are a live option, and a good bicycle has far fewer points of failure than a new car.

I noted when I was growing up that a power failure meant, “Office work stops.” Now more recently an internet or network failure means, “Office work stops,” and there is someone who said, “Systems integration is when your computer doesn’t work because of a problem on a computer you never knew existed.” Older technologies are in general not so fragile, and have more of a buffer zone before you get in to the damned backswing.

Online forums
Online forums are something of a mixed blessing. They can allow discussion of obscure topics, and have many of the benefits of the the long tail. I happily referred someone who was learning Linux to unix.stackexchange.com. But the blessing is mixed, and when I talked with my priest about rough stuff on an Orthodox forum, he said, “People love to talk about Orthodoxy. The real challenge is to do it.”

Online forums may be more wisely used to consult for information and knowhow, but maybe not the best place to find friends, or perhaps a good place to find friends, but not a good place to use for friendship.

Planned obsolescence, fashion, and being built NOT to last
When I made one visit to the Dominican Republic, one thing that surprised me was that a substantial number of the vehicles I saw were Mercedes-Benz or other luxury brands by U.S. standards, while there were no or almost no U.S. cars. The reason I was given to this by my youth pastor is that you can keep a German engineered car up and running for 30 years if you take care of it; with a U.S. car you are doing well to have a car still running after 10 years. German cars, among others, are engineered and built to last; U.S. cars are engineered and built NOT to last. And in the Dominican Republic economy, buying a car that may well run for 30 years is something people can afford; buying a car that may only last 5-7 years is a luxury people cannot afford. An old but well-cared-for Mercedes Benz, Saab, Volvo, or BMW will probably last longer than a new car which is “imported from Detroit.”

One of the features of an industrual economy is that the economy needs to have machines in production and people buying things. If we ask the question, “Was economic wealth made for man, or man for economic wealth,” the decisive answer of industrial economy is, “Man was made for economic wealth.” There are artificial measures taken to manipulate culture so as to maximize production and consumption of economic wealth, three of which are planned obsolescence, fashion, and being built NOT to last.

Planned obsolescence socially enforces repeat purchases by making goods that will have a better version available soon; in computers relatively little exploration is done to make a computer that will last a long time, because computers usually only need to last until they’re obsolete, and that level of quality is “good enough for government work.” I have an iPhone 4 and am glad not to be using my needlessly snail-like AT&T-serviced iPhone 1, but I am bombarded by advertisements telling me that I need an iPhone 4S, implying that my iPhone 4 just doesn’t cut it any more. As a matter of fact, my iPhone 4 works quite nicely, and I ignored a link advertising a free port of the iPhone 4’s distinctive feature Sila. I’m sure that if I forked out and bought an iPhone 4S, it would not be long before I saw advertisements breeding discontent about my spiffy iPhone 4S, and giving me a next hot feature to covet.

In the Middle Ages, fashion changed in clothing about once per generation. In our culture, we have shifting fashions that create a manufactured social need to purchase new clothing frequently, more like once per year. People do not buy clothing nearly so often because it is worn out and too threadbare to keep using, but because fashion shifted and such-and-such is in. Now people may be spending less on fashion-driven purchases than before, but it is still not a mainstream practice to throw a garment out because further attempts to mend il will not really help.

And lastly, there is the factor of things being made to break down. There are exceptions; it is possible for things to be built to last. I kept one Swiss Army Knife for twenty years, with few repairs beyond WD-40 and the like—and at the end of those twenty years, I gave it as a fully functional hand-me-down to someone who appreciated it. There is a wide stripe of products where engineers tried to engineer something to last and last, and not just German engineers. However, this is an exception and not the rule in the U.S. economy. I was incredulous when a teacher told me that the engineering positions some of us would occupy would have an assignment to make something that would last for a while and then break down. But it’s true. Clothing, for instance, can be built to last. However, if you buy expensive new clothing, it will probably wear out. Goodwill and other second-hand stores sometimes have things that are old enough to be built to last, but I haven’t found things to be that much sturdier: your mileage may vary. And culturally speaking, at least before present economic difficulties, when an appliance breaks you do not really take it in for repairs. You replace it with a newer model.

All of these things keep purchases coming so the gears of factories will continue. Dorothy Sayers’ “The Other Six Deadly Sins” talks about how a craftsman will want to make as good an article as possible, while mechanized industry will want to make whatever will keep the machines’ gears turning. And that means goods that are made to break down, even when it is technologically entirely feasible for factories to turn out things that are built to last.

All of these answer the question, “Was economic wealth made for man, or man for economic wealth?” with a resounding, “Man was made for economic wealth.”

Porn and things connected to porn

There is a story about a philosopher who was standing in a river when someone came to him. The philosopher asked the visitor, “What do you want?” The visitor answered, “Truth!” Then the philosopher held the visitor under the water for a little while, and asked him the second time, “What do you want?” The visitor answered, “Truth!” Then the philosopher held the visitor under water for what seemed an interminable time, and let him up and asked, “What do you want?” The visitor gasped and said, “Air!” The philosopher said, “When you want Truth the way you want air, you will find it.”

The same thing goes for freedom from the ever-darker chain called pornography, along with masturbation and the use of “ED” drugs to heighten thrills (which can cause nasty street drug-like effects even in marriage). To quote the Sermon on the Mount (RSV):

“You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

“If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

The Church Fathers are clear enough that this must not be taken literally; canon law forbids self-castration. But if you want to be free from addiction to pornography, if you want such freedom the way you want air, then you will do whatever it takes to remove the addiction.

What are your options? I’m not going to imitate the Dilbert strip’s mentioning, “How to lose weight by eating less food,” but there are some real and concrete steps you can take. If you shut off your internet service, and only check email and conduct internet business in public places with libraries, that might be the price for purity. If you are married, you might use one of many internet filters, set up with a password that is only known to your wife. You could join a men’s sexual addiction support group: that may be the price of freedom from porn, and it is entirely worth it. The general rule of thumb in confession is not to go into too much detail in confessing sexual sins, but going to confession (perhaps frequently, if your priest or spiritual father allows it) can have a powerful “I don’t want to confess this sin” effect. Another way to use the Internet is only go to use it when you have a defined purpose, and avoid free association browsing which often goes downhill. You could ask prayers of the saints, especially St. Mary of Egypt and St. John the Long-Suffering of the Kiev Near Caves. You could read and pray “The Canon of Repentance to Our Lord Jesus Christ” in the Jordanville prayer book and St. Nectarios Press’s Prayers for Purity, if your priest so blesses.

Lust is the disenchantment of the entire universe: first it drains wonder and beauty out of everything else, and then it drains wonder and beauty out of itself: the only goal of lust is more lust. It works like a street drug. St. Basil the Great compared lust to a dog licking a saw: the dog keeps licking it because it likes the taste it produces, but it does not know that it is tasting its own woundedness, and the longer it keeps up at this, the deeper the wounds become.

Furthermore, an account of fighting sexual sin is incomplete if we do not discuss gluttony. What is above the belt is very close to what is below the belt, and the Fathers saw a tight connection between gluttony and lust. Gluttony is the gateway drug to lust. “Sear your loins with fasting,” the Fathers in the Philokalia tells us; the demon of lust goes out with prayer and fasting.

Sacramental shopping

I remember when I had one great struggle before surrendering, letting go of buying a computer for my studies, and then an instant later feeling compelled to buy it. The only difference was that one was sacramental shopping to get something I really needed, and the other was just getting what I needed with the “sacramental shopping” taken out.

In American culture and perhaps others, the whole advertising industry and the shape of the economy gives a great place to “sacramental shopping”, or shopping as an ersatz sacrament that one purchases not because it is useful or any other legitimate concern, but because it delivers a sense of well-being. Like Starbucks, for instance. Some have argued that today’s brand economy is doing the job of spiritual disciplines: hence a teacher asks students, “Imagine your future successful self. With what brands do you imagine yourself associating?” and getting no puzzled looks or other body language indicating that students found the question strange. I’ve mentioned brands I consume both prestigious and otherwise; perhaps this piece would be better if I omitted mention of brands. But even if one rejects the ersatz spirituality of brands, not all brands are created equal; my previous laptop was an IBM Thinkpad I used for years before it stopped working, and the one before that was an Acer that demonstrated “You get what you pay for.” Investing in something good—paid for in cash, without incurring further debt—can be appropriate. Buying for the mystique is spiritual junk food. (And in telling about my iPhone, I didn’t mention that I tried migrating to a Droid, before realizing its user interface didn’t stack up to the iPhone’s.)

Hang the fashions. Buy only what you need,” is a rejection of brand economy as a spiritual discipline. Buy things on their merits and not because of the prestige of the brand. And learn to ignore the mystique that fuels a culture of discontent. Buy new clothes because your older clothing is wearing out, not because it is out of fashion. (It makes sense to buy classic rather than trendy.)

SecondLife
Most of the other technologies mentioned here are technologies I have dealt with myself, most often at some length. SecondLife by contrast is the one and only of the technologies on this list I haven’t even installed due to overwhelming bad intuitions when I tried to convince myself it was something I should be doing.

It may be, some time later, that SecondLife is no longer called SecondWife, and it is a routine communication technology, used as an audio/visual successor to (purely audio) phone conversations. The web was once escape, one better than the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and now it can be explored but it is quite often used for common nuts and bolts. No technology is permanently exotic: perhaps sometime the world of SecondLife will seem ordinary. But for now at least, it is an escape into building an alternative reality, and almost might as well be occult, as the foundations of modern science, for the degree of creating a new alternate reality it involves.

Smartphones, tablets, netbooks, laptops, and desktop computers

Jakob Nielsen made a distinction between computers that are movable, meaning laptops and netbooks which can be moved with far less difficulty and hassle than a desktop system, and mobile, meaning that they are the sort of thing a person can easily carry. Netbooks cross an important line compared to full-sized laptops; a regular laptop weighs enough on the shoulder that you are most likely to take a laptop in its carrying case for a reason, not just carry it like one more thing in a pocket. Netbooks, which weigh in at something like two pounds, are much lighter on the shoulder and they lend themselves more readily to keeping in a backpack, large purse, or bag of holding, without stopping to consider, “Do I really want t carry this extra weight?” Not that this is unique to netbooks; tablets are also light enough to just carry with you. Smartphones cross another important line: they are small enough to keep tucked in your pocket (or on your belt.

I was first astonished when I read that one iPhone user had completely displaced her use of the desktop computer. It surprised me for at least three reasons. First, the iPhone’s screen is tiny compared to even a small desktop screen; one thing programmers tend to learn is the more screen space they have, the better, and if they have any say in the matter, or if they have savvy management, programmers have two screens or one huge screen. Second, especially when I had an iPhone 1 that came with painfully slow and artificially limited bandwidth, the niche for it that I saw was as an emergency surrogate for a real computer that you use when, say, you’re driving to meet someone and something goes wrong. A bandwidth-throttled iPhone 1 may be painfully slow, but it is much better than nothing. And lastly, for someone used to high-speed touch typing on a regular keyboard, the iPhone, as the original Droid commercials stomped on the sore spot, “iDon’t have a real keyboard.” You don’t get better over time at touch typing an iPhone keyboard because the keyboard is one you have to look at; you cannot by touch move over two keys to the left to type your next letter. What I did not appreciate then was that you give the iPhone keyboard more focus and attention than touch typing a regular keyboard calls from; the “virtual keyboard” is amazing and it works well when you are looking at it and typing with both thumbs. And once that conceptual jolt is past, it works well.

But what I didn’t appreciate when that woman said she had stopped using her computer was that the desktop computer is wherever you have to go to use the desktop computer, while the iPhone is in one’s pocket or purse. And there is an incumbency advantage to the iPhone that is in one’s pocket or purse. It’s not just that you can only use your home computer when you are at home; if you are in one room and the computer is in another, it is less effort to jot a brief email from the phone than go to the other room and use the computer.

Laziness is a factor here; I have used my iPhone over my computer due to laziness. But more broadly a desktop or even laptop computer is in something of a sanctuary, with fewer distractions; the smartphone is wherever you are, and that may be a place with very few distractions, and it may be a place with many distractions.

Smartphones, tablets, netbooks, laptops, and desktops are all computers. The difference between them is how anchored or how portable they work out to be in practice. And the more mobile a computer is, the more effectively it will be as a noise delivery system. The ascetical challenge they represent, and the need to see that we and not the technologies hold the reins, is sharper for the newer and more mobile models.

Social networks
I personally tend not to get sucked in to Facebook; I will go to a social networking site for a very particular reason, and tend not to linger even if I want something to do. There is a reason for this; I had an inoculation. While in high school I served as a student system administrator, on a system whose primary function in actual use was a social network, with messages, chatting, forums, and so on and so forth. I drank my fill of that, so to speak, and while it was nowhere near so user-friendly as Facebook, it was a drug from the same family.

Having been through that, I would say that this is not what friendship is meant to be. It may be that friends who become physically separated will maintain correspondence, and in that case a thoughtful email is not much different from a handwritten letter. As I wrote in Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis:

  • “Social networking” is indeed about people, but there is something about social networking’s promise that is like an ambitious program to provide a tofu “virtual chicken” in every pot: there is something unambiguously social about social media, but there is also something as different from what “social” has meant for well over 99% of people as a chunk of tofu is from real chicken’s meat.
  • There is a timeless way of relating to other people, and this timeless way is a large part of Ascesis. This is a way of relating to people in which one learns to relate primarily to people one did not choose, in friendship had more permancy than many today now give marriage, in which one was dependent on others (that is, interdependent with others), in which people did not by choice say goodbye to everyone they knew at once, as one does by moving in America, and a social interaction was largely through giving one’s immediate presence.
  • “Social networking” is a very different beast. You choose whom to relate to, and you can set the terms; it is both easy and common to block users, nor is this considered a drastic measure. Anonymity is possible and largely encouraged; relationships can be transactional, which is one step beyond disposable, and many people never meet others they communicate with face-to-face, and for that matter arranging such a meeting is special because of its exceptional character.
  • Social networking can have a place. Tofu can have a place. However, we would do well to take a cue to attend to cultures that have found a proper traditional place for tofu. Asian cuisines may be unashamed about using tofu, but they consume it in moderation—and never use it to replace meat.
  • We need traditional social “meat.” The members of the youngest generation who have the most tofu in their diet may need meat the most.

“Teleporters”

I use the term “teleporters” because I do not know of a standard name, besides perhaps the name of one of the eight capital vices, for a class of technologies and other things that are in ways very different from each other but all have the same marketing proposition: escape. Not that one needs technologies to do this; metaphysics in the occult sense is another means to the same end. But all of them deliver escape.

A collection of swords is not usually amassed for defense: the owner may be delighted at the chance to learn how to handle a medieval sword, but even if the swords are “battle ready” the point is not self-defense. It’s a little bit of something that transports us to another place. Same thing for movies and video games. Same thing for historical re-enactments. Same thing, for that matter, for romances that teach women to covet a relationship with a man that could never happen, and spurn men and possibilities where a genuinely happy marriage can happen. And, for that matter, ten thousand things.

There are many things whose marketing proposition is escape, and they all peter out and leave us coveting more. They are spiritual poison if they are used for escape. There may be other uses and legitimate reasons—iPhones are, besides being “avoid spiritual work” systems, incredibly useful—but the right use of these things is not found in the marketing proposition they offer you.

Television

Television has partly been ousted with Facebook; TV is stickier than ever, but it still can’t compete with the web’s stickiest sites.

However, a couple of Far Side cartoons on television are worth pondering; if they were written today, they might mention more than TV.

In one cartoon, the caption reads, “In the days before television,” and a whole family is staring blankly at a blank spot on a wall, curled around it as if it were a television. The irony, of course, is that this is not what things were like before television began sucking the life out of everything. The days before television were that much more dynamic and vibrant; Gary Larson’s caption, with a cartoon that simply subtracts television from the eighties, is dripping with ironic clarity about precisely what the days before television were not.

In the other cartoon, an aboriginal tribesman stands at the edge of a chasm, a vine bridge having just been cut and fallen into the chasm and making the chasm impassible. On the other side were a group of angry middle-class suburbanites, and the tribesman was holding a television. The caption read, “And so Mbogo stood, the angry suburbanites standing on the other side of the chasm. Their idol was now his, as well as its curse.”

Some years back, an advertising executive wrote, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (one friend reacted, “The author could only think of four?”), and though the book is decades old it speaks today. All of the other technologies that have been stealing television’s audiences do what television did, only more effectively and with more power.

I said at one point that the television is the most expensive appliance you can own. The reasoning was simple. For a toaster or a vacuum cleaner, if it doesn’t break, it costs you the up front purchase price, along with electricity, gas, or any other utilities it uses. And beyond those two, there is no further cost as long as it works. But with television, there was the most powerful propaganda engine yet running, advertising that will leave you keeping up with the Joneses (or, as some have argued after comparing 1950’s kitchen appliances with 1990’s kitchen appliances, keeping up with the Trumps). In this ongoing stream, the programming is the packaging and the advertising is the real content. And the packaging is designed not to steal the show from the content. Today television rules less vast of a realm, but megasites deliver the same principle: the reason you go to the website is a bit of wrapping, and the product being sold is you.

Our economy is in a rough state, but welcome to keeping up with the Trumps version 2.0. The subscription fees for smartphones and tablets are just the beginning.

The timeless way of relating

Christopher Alexander saw that computers were going to be the next building, and he was the champion who introduced computer-aided design to the field of architecture. Then he came to a second realization, that computer-aided design may make some things easier and faster, but it does not automatically make a building better: computer aided design makes it easier to architect good and bad buildings alike, and if you ask computers to make better buildings, you’re barking up the wrong fire hydrant.

But this time his work, A Timeless Way of Building, fell on deaf ears in the architectural community… only to be picked up by software developers and be considered an important part of object-oriented software design. The overused term MVC (“model-view-controller”), which appears in job descriptions when people need a candidate who solves problems well whether or not that meant using MVC, is part of the outflow of object-oriented programming seeing something deep in patterns, and some programmers have taken a profound lesson from A Timeless Way of Building even if good programmers in an interview have to conceal an allergic reaction when MVC is presented as a core competency for almost any kind of project.

There really is A Timeless Way of Building, and Alexander finds it in some of ancient and recent architecture alike. And in the same vein there is a timeless way of relating. In part we may see it as one more piece of it is dismantled by one more technology migration. But there is a real and live timeless relating, and not just through rejecting technologies.

C.S. Lewis, in a passage in That Hideous Strength which has great romantic appeal if nothing else, talks about how everything is coming to a clearer and sharper point. Abraham was not wrong for his polygamy as we would be for polygamy, but there is some sense that he didn’t profit from it. Merlin was not something from the sixth century, but the last survival in the sixth century of something much older when the dividing line between matter and spirit was not so sharp as it is today. Things that have been gray, perhaps not beneficial even if they are not forbidden, are more starkly turning to black or white.

This is one of the least convincing passages for Lewis’s effort to speak of “mere Christianity.” I am inclined to think that something of the exact opposite is true, that things that have been black and white in ages past have more leniency, more grey. Not necessarily that leniency equals confusion; Orthodoxy has two seemingly antitethetical but both necessary principles of akgravia (striving for strict excellence) and oikonomia (the principle of mercifully relaxing the letter of the law). We seem to live in a time of oikonomia from the custom which has the weight of canon law, where (for instance) the ancient upper class did far less physical exertion than the ancient lower class and slaves, but middle class fitness nuts today exercise less than the ancient upper class. Three hours of aerobic exercise is a lot. While we pride ourselves on abolishing legal slavery, we wear not only clothing from sweatshops made at the expense of preventable human misery, but large wardrobes and appliances and other consumer goods that bear a price tag in human misery. Many Orthodox have rejected the position of the Fathers on contraception from time immemorial, and the Church has been secularized enough for many to get their bearings from one article.

But two things are worth mentioning here. The first is that this is a time that invites prophets. Read the Old Testament prophets: prophets, named “the called ones” in the Old Testament never come when things are going well to say “Keep it up. Carry on your good work!” They come in darker days.

Second, while we live in a time where mere gloom is called light and we rely on much more oikonomia than others, oikonomia is real Orthodoxy in proper working order, and in ways Orthodoxy with oikonomia is much greater than rigidly rejecting oikonomia. The people who call themselves “True Orthodox”, or now that “True Orthodox” sounds fishy, rename the term “Genuine Orthodox” to avoid the troubles they have created for the name of “True Orthodox.” And despite observing the letter of canons more scrupulously than even the most straight-laced of normal Orthodox, these people are people who don’t get Orthodoxy, and would do well to receive the penance of eating a thick steak on a strict fast day.

And despite having so many slices taken out, the timeless way of relating is alive and well. It is present at a meal around table with friends. It is present when a man and wife remain together “til death do us part.” It is present when Catholics adore the Eucharist, or Evangelicals don’t miss a Sunday’s church for years and keep up with their quiet times and Bible studies. “Conversation is like texting for adults,” said our deacon, and the timeless way of relating is there when people use texting to arrange a face-to-face visit. The timeless way of relating is always close at hand.

Video games
I was introduced to the computer game rogue and while in school wanted to play rogue / UltraRogue for as long as I could. When I decided in grad school that I wanted to learn to program, I wrote a crufty and difficult-to-understand roguelike game implemented in 60,000 lines of C.

Those many hours I played in that fantasy land were my version of time lost in television. There are things I could have done that I didn’t: create something, explore time outside, write letters. And as primitive and humble as rogue is, it stems from the same root as World of Warcraft. It is one of several technologies I have tasted in an egg: rogue, UltraRogue, The Minstrel’s Song, and different MUDs; or a command-line computer doing the work of a social network. And on that score, see Children’s toys on Baudelaire’s “la Morale du Joujou”. The newer games and social network may connect more dots and do some of your imagining for you. The core remains: you sit in front of a computer, transported to a fantasy land, and not exploring the here and now that you have been placed in in all its richness.

The Web

When I was a boy and when I was a youth, it was a sheer delight to go to Honey Rock Camp. I don’t want to elaborate on all of my fond memories but I would like to point to one memory in particular: the web.

Resourceful people had taken a World War II surplus piece of netting, attached it to the edges of a simple building, and pulled the center up by a rope. The result was everything a child wants from a waterbed, and I remember, for instance, kids gathering on the far side of the web, my climbing up the rope, and then letting go and dropping five or ten feet into the web, sending little children flying. And as with my other macho ways of connecting with children, if I did this once I was almost certainly asked to do it again. (The same goes, for some extent, with throwing children into the web.)

I speak of that web in the past tense, because after decades of being a cherished attraction, the web was falling apart and it was no longer a safe attraction. And the people in charge made every effort to replace it, and found to everyone’s dismay that they couldn’t. Nobody makes those nets; and apparently nobody has one of those nets available, or at least not for sale. And in that regard the web is a characteristic example of how technologies are handled in the U.S. (“Out with the old, in with the new!“) Old things are discarded, so the easily available technologies are just the newer one.

Software is fragile; most technological advances in both software and hardware are more fragile than what they replace. Someone said, “If builders built buildings the way programmers write programs, the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization.” The web is a tremendous resource, but it will not last forever, and there are many pieces of technology stack that could limit or shut off the web. Don’t assume that because the web is available today it will equally well be available indefinitely.

Conclusion

This work has involved, perhaps, too much opinion and too much of the word “I”; true Orthodox theology rarely speaks of me, “myself, and I,” and in the rare case when it is really expedient to speak of oneself, the author usually refers to himself in the third person.

The reason I have referred to myself is that I am trying to make a map that many of us are trying to make sense of. In one sense there is a very simple answer given in monasticism, where renunciation of property includes technology even if obediences may include working with it, and the words Do not store up treasures on earth offer another simple answer, and those of us who live in the world are bound not to be attached to possessions even if they own them. The Ladder of Divine Ascent offers a paragraph addressed to married people and a book addressed to monastics, but it has been read with great profit by all manner of people, married as well as monastic.

Somewhere amidst these great landmarks I have tried to situate my writing. I do not say that it is one of these landmarks; it may be that the greatest gift is a work that will spur a much greater Orthodox to do a much better job.

My godfather offered me many valuable corrections when I entered the Orthodox Church, but there is one and only one I would take issue with. He spoke of the oddity of writing something like “the theology of the hammer”; and my own interest in different sources stemmed from reading technological determinist authors like Neil Postman, and even if a stopped clock is right twice a day, their Marxism is a toxic brew.

However, I write less from the seductive effects of those books, my writing is not because they have written XYZ but because I have experienced certain things in mystical experience. I have a combined experience of decades helping run a Unix box that served as a social network, and playing MUDs, and sampling their newer counterparts. My experience in Orthodoxy has found great mystical truth and depth in the words, Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. Part of that pruning has been the involuntary removal of my skills as a mathematics student;; much of it has been in relation to technology. The Bible has enough to say about wealth and property as it existed millenia ago; it would be strange to say that Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth speaks to livestock and owning precious metals but has nothing to do with iPads.

One saint said that the end will come when one person no longer makes a path to visit another. Even with social media, we now have the technology to do that.

Let our technology be used ascetically, or not at all.

Read more of The Luddite’s Guide to Technology on Amazon!

Take Your Shoes Off Your Feet, for the Place Where You Are Standing Is Holy Ground: A Meditation for Lent

Cover for The Best of Jonathan's Corner

Take your shoes off of your feet:
For the place where you stand is holy ground

And an angel of the Lord appeared to him in flaming fire out of the bush, and he sees that the bush burns with fire,—but the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will go near and see this great sight, why the bush is not consumed. And when the Lord saw that he drew nigh to see, the Lord called him out of the bush, saying, Moses, Moses, and he said, What is it? And he said, Draw not high hither: loose thy sandals from thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. And he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraam, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and Moses turned away his face, for he was afraid to gaze at God…

And Moses said to God, Behold, I shall go forth to the children of Israel, and shall say to them, The God of our fathers has sent me to you; and they will ask me, What is his name? What shall I say to them? And God spoke to Moses, saying, I am THE BEING, and he said, Thus shall ye say to the children of Israel, THE BEING has sent me unto you.

(Exodus 3:2-5, 13-14, Sir Lancelot Brenton’s translation of the LXX)

(For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds.) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ: And having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled.

I Corinthians 10:4-6, KJV

The Fathers bid us, in approaching holiness, to take away the dead thoughts of the passions. In their day, and in Righteous Abraham’s day, and for that matter often in ours, shoes are made of leather, the dead skin of animals, and the Fathers bid us cast away the dead thoughts of the passions as we approach God.

I would like to look at this further, but first pause to look at two distractions and say, “That is understandable, but it is fundamentally inadequate.”

The first distraction:
Tinkering to straighten out our worldview

On reading “bringing into captivity every thought”, a natural reading today is “bring into captivity our worldview and every part of it,” and steadily working on our worldview to make it Christian.

But the idea of thinking worldviewishly, and classifying religions (with philosophies and political ideologies) as worldviews is of recent vintage in the history of religions; it would have been as alien to Calvin and Luther as to St. Athanasios or St. John Chrysostom. A worldview appears to stand on its own, but entirely neglected is the thought that a worldview may come into existence as almost a by-product of the Way one walks.

I spoke with one person and quoted G.K. Chesterton saying, “Buddhism is not a creed. It is a doubt.” I pronounced the final ‘t’ rather silently, and he asked me if I had said, “Buddhism is not a creed. It is a Tao,” meaning a Way that one walks. The conversation included his mention of a book written by a Christian missionary to Japan, Zen Way, Jesus Way, and while my intended point was something else, that Buddhism is skeptical and perhaps in stronger form than most Western skepticism, the point he anticipated is also true: Buddhism is not about what you believe but the Way that you walk. And on this point we may saliently point out that the oldest name for Christianity, the name used in the New Testament itself, is not “the Creed,” but “the Way.”

My godfather knew rather astutely what kinds of temptations I would face, and when I asked him a question about building an Orthodox worldview, he pointedly insisted that I had not been invited to work out an Orthodox worldview, but to walk the Orthodox Way. There may be an Orthodox worldview, but it emerges out of walking the Orthodox Way, and the suggestion that it takes seven to ten years to become Orthodox, this does not mean that it takes seven to ten years of worldview tinkering to develop the right worldview, but it takes seven to ten years for a whole person’s transformation to occur. And even then, a number of Orthodox saints, described as being baptized in their own blood because they were martyred before they could manage to get baptized at all, are canonized saints who had pagan worldviews while they lived on earth, and canonized saints who did not spend their brief time confessing Christ on straightening out their worldviews.

There is something seductive about seeing things in terms of worldview; it is a hammer that soon makes everything appear to be a nail, so that “taking every thought captive” seems to mean “installing a piece of your worldview” and not, for instance, taking a lustful thought captive, and breaking it apart. But leave that for later. For now, I would note that the idea of thinking worldviewishly is of recent vintage, and mention that in Islam the term for ‘heresy’ is ‘innovation.’ Not that I am endorsing Islam; but What the West Doesn’t Get About Jihadists and Islam is largely about the Muslim Way and only to a lesser degree about delving into the Islamic worldview.

The second distraction:
The refinement of desire

A picturesque pair of antique opera glasses

Show me what a person desires, and I will show you his heart.

To the right is a pair of antique opera glasses; I mention it partly to show my temptations. They are a valued gift from a valued friend, but in a way they are also like the Dr. Who sonic screwdriver a team lead got for Christmas: they seem like a touch of another world here: the realms of the Urvanovestilli, or The Steel Orb. And what seems to be a piece of an unreal world brings real pleasure, but on a deeper, spiritual level, is something of a non sequitur: I should only value the opera glasses, not as a token of worlds I have as an author imagined, but as a valued gift from a valued friend.

Reading the saints’ lives has something to do with this. It may be said that the saints’ lives, “biography as theology”, are an important spiritual staple food for neophytes and an important spiritual staple sought out by the more advanced. My own desires have been sought out and something I wanted fulfilled: first of all by my favorite children’s book, Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, which left me desiring kything, Teachers, and giftedness, and much later writing Within the Steel Orb: I went to mail Madeleine l’Engle a copy but found out that she had just passed away. After a different spiritual struggle I made The Minstrel’s Song with its cultures, and I pined for that world. Then later I read medieval sources for the Arthurian legends, and I pined for knighthood and the Holy Grail and wrote The Sign of the Grail. And the same, I believe, holds for Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, romance novels of being swept off one’s feet, and quite a lot of TV, literature, and movies.

We are made to desire, and there is nothing wrong with that. But our desires often point in the wrong directions, and the saints’ lives in particular help reorient and refine our desires so that we heed the Apostle’s precept, Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. We are to desire things that are real—and good.

This, however, is limited in scope; it is one point among others, and I have not read worldviewish-style attempts to tinker with one’s desires in the Fathers. The verse I cited is beautiful enough, but I have not read any of the Fathers make it a leitmotif. I don’t want to downplay the saints’ lives, but there is more benefit to reading them than just the shaping and reshaping of our desires. But there is something of our thoughts that the Fathers make central. But let us pause for one moment before moving on.

When the ink was still drying on the medieval versions of the Arthurian legends, they told of a Never-Never Land that was long ago and far away. Such things as commerce and peasant’s worknever intrude on the scene; the pseudohistory in the “Brut” which first captivated the hearts and minds of Europe outside of Celtic circles, already placed King Arthur at six centuries in its past, in a past that never existed. There is a common thread in these desires for the unreal; we are better off desiring what is real (see Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony With Nature: Anatomy of a passion for further discussion), and at least one saint has found happiness and said, “Whatever happens to you, desire it.” Again, we are to desire what is real and desire what is good.

Not a distraction:
Taking the shoes of passionate thoughts off our feet

It has been said, “Nothing but a metaphysic ever replaces a metaphysic.” Nothing Western, at least. But a true metaphysic can be replaced by an ersatz metaphysic; unlike ‘weak agnosticism’, which says in essence “I do not yet know whether God, or gods, or angels exist,” ‘strong agnosticism’ says “We can never know if God, or gods, or angels exist,” and that rules out any deity capable of decisive revelation, ruling out the Christian God quickly. And that provides an ersatz metaphysic in continuity with the ersatz metaphysics implied by continental epistemology.

However, it is possible to have a metaphysic replaced by something else: Zen replaces a metaphysic with silence, and Orthodox Christianity, which has a metaphysic, also has silence, and beyond Buddhism having been influenced by Christianity and Zen resembling Orthodox hesychasm, the silence of Orthodox hesychasm is on par with the silence that replaces a metaphysic.

“You have more power than you think,” an alcoholic or addict is told. Once temptation is in full swing, it’s a difficult and often losing fight for the upper hand. But there is a brief, easy-to-look moment, when the temptation comes, very small.

If your house is burning down, it may take fire hoses to stop; when the fire is in a room, pouring out a bucket and running for another may stop it; easiest of all is to smush out a smouldering spark as it hits the curtains. If you blot out the spark, with it you blot out all the remaining process of damage. In a monastic setting, men were warned that if a mental image of a man’s face appears, temptation to anger is close at hand, and if a woman’s face appears, temptation to lust is close at hand, and they say “In Christ there is no male nor female“: neither temptation need have dominion over us.

In its beginning, the temptation is not yet a temptation. A passionate image, what the Fathers saw in the dead leather shoes Moses was commanded to remove, is not the very first part of temptation. The very first part of temptation is a simple image not mixed with passion: perhaps not a face, but an image of gold, which will soon be mixed with a temptation to covet. Then if we dally with the thought, it becomes mixed with passion, and the longer you go the harder the fight becomes. Confession is always available and it is a second baptism and a clean slate, but the Orthodox filled with hesychastic silence does not have or develop thick, strong arms from dousing buckets of water onto burning furniture, but attentiveness and quick reflexes from putting out sparks. Now this needs to be put alongside the monk who was asked, “What do you do?” and said, “We fall and get up; fall and get up; fall and get up.” But hesychasm is mindful, mindful of one’s thoughts, observing and mentally separating thoughts and mental images from the passions mixed in them.

Lent, the central season of the Church year:
A Lenten Psalm

Great Lent is hard, but it is the central season in the Church calendar. During Great Lent, the choir chants what may be the most politically incorrect part of Scripture:

For David, a Psalm of Jeremias

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat;
And wept when we remembered Sion.
We hung our harps on the willows in the midst of it.
For there they that had taken us captive asked of us the words of a song;
And they that had carried us away asked a hymn, saying,
Sing us one of the songs of Sion.

How should we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cleave to my throat, if I do not remember thee;
If I do not prefer Jerusalem as the chief of my joy.

Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem;
Who said, Rase it, rase it, even to its foundations.
Wretched daughter of babylon!
Blessed shall he be who shall reward thee as thou hast rewarded us.
Blessed shall he be who shall sieze and dash thine infants against the rock.

(Psalm 136/137, Sir Lancelot Brenton’s translation of the LXX)

“Blessed shall what?!?!? This is sung in church in Lent?”

Yes: the entire Psalm speaks to our spiritual condition. We were made for Jerusalem, the city of peace, which is ultimately Heaven, but we have allowed ourselves, every one, to be taken captive to the foreign land of sin and passion. How can we sing the Lord’s song when we are exiled to the land of passion? As to the last words, the Fathers say that the rock is Christ: infant Babylonians grow into adult Babylonians, and tiny and seemingly insignificant passions, tiny sparks, grow into full-grown passions, a fire burning up our house. And it is against Christ that we must extinguish sparks. The vilest of sins is a smouldering ember thrown into the ocean of God’s love, but still, the earlier we dash passions against Christ, the better. If we have allowed to a spark to set a chair on fire, douse it with Christ. And in all things remember the holy city, the city of peace which is ultimately Heaven. And strive for it.

An unwelcome, unsought blessing:
“Ask better!”

Lent seems to be the sort of thing one would not want. We are to cut back on pleasures, and give more to others. And it is supposed to be a struggle; if we’re cruising through Lent and having no worries, something is wrong, and we need to work with our priest to make it a better struggle. But monks say, “Have a good struggle.”

But this much is a blessing in disguise, and is part of why devout, seasoned Orthodox often look forward to the challenge. The rules forbidding things in the Orthodox life all tell a pet, “Don’t drink out of the toilet,” which really means, “Ask better.” Lent is about letting go of things we believe will satisfy us and accepting the things which really will satisfy us.

In my repentance implied in “The refinement of desire” above, every thing I let go of was so I could grasp something better. Perhaps my growth is more stunted than most; perhaps it is less. No matter; God has summoned me to ask better and open my hand wide to receive blessings. And I mention this not to make a big deal of my own struggle, but because these are one form of the struggles we all face, because (I hope) they could serve as Everyman’s struggles, and I could concretely name something we all must face to ask better.

Ask better. And have a good struggle.

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Introduction to the Jesus Prayer

Cover for Mystical Theology

The Jesus Prayer is the gateway to silence, and silence is the language of Heaven. Silence is not the mere absence of sound, any more than beauty is the mere absence of ugliness. The chant of the Orthodox Church is crafted from silence: it articulates the eloquent silence of Heaven. One facet of holiness is a life and a heart that is silent within, that surrenders layer after layer of internal noise, and is simply present to eternity in the here and now that God has given. And silent people carry Paradise with and around them. Indeed Paradise is where God’s people are present.

The metronome giving the beat of silence in many saints is the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer takes different forms, short and long. Among these are:

  • Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
  • Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
  • Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
  • Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
  • Lord, have mercy.

A metronome is a tool used to teach music. It ticks like a clock, but it can tick quickly or slowly for a song, and it helps people learn how long notes should last and lays a foundation for playing correctly, and then moving on from playing correctly to playing well.

When a musician plays for real, the metronome is hidden. The audience may not hear it, but it has reached its full depth when the musician follows its rhythm internally. Orthodox hesychasm, or silent spiritual stillness, is meant so that the Jesus Prayer always be with us. “Prayer of the heart” is when the Jesus Prayer is sunk deeply enough in our hearts that moves of its own.

There are concrete ways we can pursue this. We can work to say this prayer with each breath: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, as we breathe in, have mercy on me, a sinner, as we breathe out. We can say this prayer aloud, or silently in our mouths, or silently in our hearts. There is something powerful about saying the prayer aloud over and over again, and the other forms are meant to grow out of this foundation. Some people find it helpful to have a prayer rope, saying the prayer as they breathe and holding one bead or knot and then another to keep count. If you buy a prayer rope, the size does not particularly matter. I was given a 200 knot prayer rope but usually wear a simple black 50 knot prayer rope. Other people don’t wear the rope on their wrist, but keep it in a pocket and pull it out to pray.

There are many places you can get prayer ropes, including:

There is an ancient command, “Let nothing be done without the bishop.” The Jesus Prayer is part of the Orthodox Way and is rightly practiced as dovetailing with the sacramental life and community in the Orthodox Church. There is a saying, “As always, ask your priest,” and it applies to anything here.

The metronome is made to fade away: it is not for the real performance. But in this regard the Jesus Prayer is more than a metronome: it soaks ever deeper, but it remains. It opens a door to inner spiritual silence, the tradition of hesychasm in the Church, and it offers healing from the spiritual noise we are addicted to. Many of our technologies are practical, but most of them are also used to deliver spiritual noise, a daily fix of poison that keeps us from inner silence. The television, much of leisure spent on the Internet, all draws us precisely because it is laced with the narcotic of spiritual noise.

Another layer of inner silence is a kind of watchfulness that watches over one’s inner state, desires, mental images, and thoughts. This is not “thinking about thinking” in the fashion that is popular today, but opening one’s nose to the stench of spiritual disease all of us have, whether we recognize and fight it or not. When we meet a diseased thought, of lust or pride, or using others in greed, it helps us if we can see what in the thought is diseased. It is hard enough not to worry, but sometimes if we can observe our worried thoughts and see what is spiritual disease, we might learn the wisdom of “Don’t tell me not to worry, nothing I worry about ever happens!” We might see as with all passionate thoughts that if we break the thought into its parts and see the spiritual disease, suddenly it looks rather groundless. Once we are in our right mind, or rather our right heart, some of our terrifying worries seem rather silly.

The Sermon on the Mount is among the shortest of the divine owner’s manual for human life. It says a lot of difficult things, but it doesn’t say how, and hesychasm, the tradition of the Jesus Prayer and inner stillness guarded by watchfulness is how. It tells how not to worry; it tells how not to store up treasures in Heaven; it tells how to come to a point that we recognize anger and lust as tiny seeds so that we may stamp out smouldering rags and perhaps burn ourselves a little, instead of needing heroic efforts to stop a house fire. It tells how to seek a Kingdom of Heaven that is built in our lives out of the stones of the virtues and spiritual discipline. The Sermon on the Mount hits us flat on our chest and says, “Here is holiness. We don’t live it.” It is perhaps the best command in history to, “Wake up and smell the coffee!” Hesychasm, with its watchfulness and the Jesus Prayer a rhythm as we breathe, equips us in concrete terms to scale those peaks. Hesychasm is how to till the spiritual ground so that it will bear the fruit that blazes in the The Sermon on the Mount.

You don’t strictly need a prayer rope; many have found them helpful, but they are an aid. Without a prayer rope you may still be able to reach the point where the prayer is always an aroma you smell when you breathe. And they cost money; perhaps God’s plan for your transfiguration has you spending your money on other things. The rhythm of prayer is a treasure no one is too poor to buy.

If you are Orthodox, why not discuss with your priest how you might step into this rich tradition? If you are not Orthodox, ask if the Orthodox Church can share with you of its treasures. Some priests might have you receive other treasures first; some might directly offer you guidance in coming to experience freedom from addiction to noise, a freedom that is like the layers of music that come after one first learns how to use a metronome, the rhythm of “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” increasingly giving the breath of God that we breathe its true and proper stature.

The Kingdom of Heaven appears as the silence of the Jesus Prayer unfurls.

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iPhones and Spirituality

I would like to talk about iPhones and spirituality, and what spirituality has to do with right use of things like iPhones. This may be a bit of an “opposing views” presentation to other points here; I hope the challenge is ultimately constructive.

My first point has to do with one of Rajeev’s points in our last meeting, of “Embrace your pain,” and what it really means for the iPhone, and more specifically how our use of technologies like the iPhone relates to spiritual work such as embracing your pain. Rajeev really made several excellent points in his lecture last time, and I’d like to pick up on just one: “Embrace your pain.” The iPhone’s marketing proposition is as a game changing technological drug that will help you dodge this spiritual lesson. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the iPhone is designed, marketed, and sold as a portable “Avoid spiritual work” system.

Is there any alternative to using various technologies to avoid spiritual work? Let’s look at recent history, the 1980’s, and how that decade’s technological drug is something we may now have some critical distance to look at. There is a classic Far Side cartoon that says in its caption, “In the days before television,” and shows a family hunched around an area on the blank wall where a television would be. The irony is that this wasn’t the days before television at all; the days before television were that much more dynamic and vibrant, and the cartoon was only what you get if you subtract television from the 80’s, when televisions had drained all of the life out of things. The distinction may be subtle, but there is a profound difference between those two versions of what it means to be without television, one vibrant and with people doing things and another with people bleakly staring at a wall—and this is why many people now have made an intentional and mindful decision to avoid television as a pack of cigarettes for the mind. Another Far Side cartoon, as best I can remember, shows an aboriginal tribesman standing on the opposite side of a deep chasm from a crowd of angry middle-class suburbanites, where a vine bridge has just been cut and fallen into the chasm, with a caption something like, “And so Umbuntu stood, the angry suburbanites stranded on the other side of the chasm. Their idol was now his, as well as its curse.” And the tribesman was holding a television. One wonders what the Far Side would say about iPhones after they had carved out their niche. And that brings me to my second point, what I call, “the timeless way of relating.”

There is a timeless way of relating, a way that is guarded by Eastern Orthodox ascetics but hardly a monopoly. It has many sides, and there is much more to it than its intentional decisions about technology. It has much to do with embracing your pain and the here and now that we can partly dodge with iPhones, and be present. And I’ll take an educated guess that Science of Spirituality’s leader is among those that have this presence that arises from embracing where you are and its pain.

But a return to the past and laying the reins on the iPhone’s neck aren’t the only two options, not really. Oliver Holmes said, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” I am quite deliberately delivering this lecture with my iPhone in hand. And there is ultimately spiritual work on the other side of the iPhone and its kin, that uses it but does not abuse it as a way to dodge the here and now, but uses the iPhone, and embraces one’s pain. And it sets limits and sometimes abstains, much as one does with alcohol.

In conclusion, iPhones and similar technologies have changed the game—but not always for the better, not in every way for the better. Not that we must always avoid them (police officers using drug dealers’ confiscated iPhones found that they were incredibly useful) but we must set limits as one does with alcohol and be sure that our spiritual work, not technologies, holds the reins. It is an uphill battle, but it is entirely worth fighting.

The Incarnation: Orthodoxy, Islam, and the Reformation

The central, root difference between Orthodoxy and Islam is that Orthodoxy affirms the Incarnation wholeheartedly and Islam wholeheartedly denies it. If you want to see what difference believing or not believing in the Incarnation makes, look at the differences between Orthodoxy and Islam.

As a point of departure, I would like to look at something about Islam that is not entirely obvious to many people in the West. As I write, the U.S. is involved in Iraq and this issue looms large in not only U.S. but world politics. I don’t want to write lengthy comments on whether war is ever appropriate, or, if war can be appropriate, whether there were appropriate reasons for the U.S. to fight, or whether or not the U.S. has brought genuine good things to the Iraqi populace, or exposing inhuman treatment of prisoners. Those may be well enough worth discussing, but the single issue that concerns me here is the U.S. endeavor to endow Iraq with “freedom and democracy.”

That rally, that cry—to bring “freedom and democracy” to Iraq—had me wincing well before I heard about Guantanamo Bay. Quite simply, there is a more profound cultural insensitivity in trying to bestow democracy on part of the Islamic world than one can easily explain. It is obvious enough that starting a rumor about flushing the Quran down a toilet is patently offensive. What is harder to explain is why trying to install democracy may be a bigger gaffe.

What in Islam could be offended by democracy? The answer is a first glimpse of what difference the Incarnation makes, but the connection is not at surface level.

Western observers in the Islamic world talk of an “IBM,” an acronym for inshallah, meaning, “It will happen if Allah wills it and it will not happen if Allah does not will it, and you don’t really have much say in whether Allah wills it,” bukra, meaning, “Tomorrow; it can be done tomorrow; it need not be done today,” and malesh, meaning, “It was fated; it was doomed to happen that way.” When you understand inshallah, bukra, malesh, you understand something that runs very deep in Muslim culture.

G.K. Chesterton, in Heretics, writes a chapter called Omar Khayyam and the Sacred Vine. Omar Khayyam was a 12th century Iranian thinker who studied under a famous Imam, but is not necessarily the image of a good, devout Muslim: he was a renegade Muslim, if he really was a Muslim, and the point Chesterton is trying to make is a criticism of Omar who (on Chesterton’s indictment) advocates heavy wine-drinking to blot out a miserable universe. Chesterton writes:

Of course, the great part of the more stolid reproaches directed against the Omarite morality are as false and babyish as such reproaches usually are. One critic, whose work I have read, had the incredible foolishness to call Omar an atheist and a materialist. It is almost impossible for an Oriental to be either; the East understands metaphysics too well for that. Of course, the real objection which a philosophical Christian would bring against the religion of Omar, is not that he gives no place to God, it is that he gives too much place to God. His is that terrible theism which can imagine nothing else but deity, and which denies altogether the outlines of human personality and human will.

“The ball no question makes of Ayes or Noes,
But Here or There as strikes the Player goes;
And He that tossed you down into the field,
He knows about it all—he knows—he knows.”

A Christian thinker such as Augustine or Dante would object to this because it ignores free-will, which is the valour and dignity of the soul. The quarrel of the highest Christianity with this scepticism is not in the least that the scepticism denies the existence of God; it is that it denies the existence of man.

In this aspect, Omar retains something significant from Islam. Renegade as he may be, there is something from Islam deep in his bones: God, the Player, will act as he will, and it is a fundamental error to think that our Yes or No makes a difference. And even in a renegade Muslim with little respect for popular piety, this foundational attitude remains.

By contrast, as I write, Today’s Vile Attack on Christianity is Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass and ilk, and it would be a stretched argument to say that Pullman is trying to be Christian. Far from it; he provides Today’s Vile Attack on Christianity, but there is something very different from Khayyam. Pullman retains a profoundly Christian assumption: that his actions matter, that he can make a difference in the world. No one I’ve read has suggested that Pullman is fatalistic and treats the religious beliefs he hates as doomed to be there and that no endeavor he could make would matter or make a difference.

Philip Pullman is a renegade against popular Christianity, and Omar Khayyam is a lesser renegade against popular Islam, but they both retain something significant of the piety they rebel against. Pullman, on a very deep level, lives out the Christian belief that his Yes or No in fact matters for something, and Omar retains unchallenged the understanding that God alone may say Yes or No. This is the same conviction in the inshallah, bukra, malesh that it is not our place to say Yes or No, or at least say a Yes or No that makes an actual difference.

If it is not our place to say Yes or No, then what is democracy? Democracy can take some different forms, but its basic premise is that people can and should say a Yes or No that amounts to something, and whether it is a direct democracy, a representative democracy, or something else, the root idea is to empower people to say Yes or No… which, in other words, is to usurp the office of God in the eyes of many Muslims.

As far as insensitivity goes, the nearest equivalent I have been able to think of if someone were to conquer the U.S., would be decide that the best thing for our traditions would be to install a fundamentalist Christian theocracy. And that still does not capture an offense of a political assumption that, on many Muslim understandings, amounts to blasphemy.

If you want to know what this has to do with the Incarnation, let me ask you a question: What does the Incarnation mean if we are denied the freedom to say a significant Yes or No, if it is the very opposite of the truth to say that God created us to be his conversation partners?

One of the biggest things it means is that, if Christ had freedom to issue a real and significant Yes or No, this is as a special exception because he was God that does not have a direct bearing on our lives. If Christ alone had real freedom, the truth of this is a philosophical truth but not a practical truth that directly helps us live human lives. Christ’s divinity is not connected to our humanity, and it turns out that his humanity is dubiously connected to our humanity: which is to say, we are somewhat short of the Incarnation.

History may forget most people whom it does not call movers and shakers; God has numbered the hairs on our heads, and he forever remembers every person who has ever lived and indeed every action, every choice, every Yes or No as eternally significant choices as we choose between Heaven and Hell. This is to say that our freedom matters, and if Christ made a holy exercise of his freedom, this is the supreme example of human freedom with every relevance to our lives: an Incarnation that is not simply a philosophical truth, but has practical relevance to daily living.

More explicitly, the Orthodox understanding of the Incarnation is not, “Something that had not happened one second before the Annunciation when Mary conceived the Son of God, and something that was completely finished one second after that conception.” That almost approaches saying that building the United States of America was something that had not started one second before the first person signed the Declaration of Independence, and something that left nothing more to do one second after the last person signed that Declaration. Or it is like saying that once an inventor has a working prototype of some invention, all the real work has been taken care of—with no mention of the work that had to take place each time an invention like the light bulb, the car, or the computer became no longer a curiosity in an inventor’s lab, but saw widespread use in the community at large. It is a fundamental mistake to read the Bible, and read about the Church as the body of Christ, among other things, and think that the Incarnation ends with the Son of God becoming fully man in the conception of the Annunciation, and does not include Christ becoming Incarnate in the Church. The Incarnation is ultimately the Incarnation of Christ in the Church, in Christians whom the Bible rightly calls sons of God, and finally the whole Creation.

Once it is understood that we are created to be part of Christ’s Incarnation unfolding, that we are created to be co-workers with God and co-heirs with Christ, given a freedom to which God assigns eternal significance and created for the express purpose of being God’s conversation partners, then it may be easier to see that Islam with its inshallah, bukra, malesh and its renegade proclaiming—

The ball no question makes of Ayes or Noes,
But Here or There as strikes the Player goes;
And He that tossed you down into the field,
He knows about it all—he knows—he knows.

—then it is possible to see that the denial that we are given the place to say Yes or No is not random; it is part of the logic working out in Islam’s fundamental rejection of the Incarnation.

Now I would like to introduce another point. Is Islam better at being monotheist than Trinitarian Christianity? I would like to give an image for that.

I’ve heard the image that it is a fundamental error to say, excluding created spirits, that someone who doesn’t believe in God would count the number of items in the universe, everything from galaxies down to protons, and arrive at a number—let us say, 1,000,000,000,000,000—and the person who believes in God simply arrives at one more—let us say, 1,000,000,000,000,001: the person who doesn’t believe in God arrives at one number, and the person who does believe in God simply counts one more.

That error has been called idolatry; it’s the same kind of error as going into a plant that manufactures Bibles, and after being shown the machines that lay out the paper and the printers that lay down ink, asking to be shown, alongside the paper and ink, the spiritual authority that is being put into the Bibles. The spiritual value of the Bible is not the sort of thing that is ordered as a material used to make Bibles, and it is a fundamental error to ask to be shown the spiritual meaning the same way one could ask to be shown the glue or cloth materials used for binding. It is something of the same kind of error in thinking that God is one more thing that can be counted as material objects are counted—and Orthodoxy and Islam alike would really wince at the idea that God is one more thing that lets you reach a total of 1,000,000,000,000,001 objects in your counting.

The next step of this argument is as follows: if material counting is something you misuse by applying it to God, then denying that the Trinity is still one God may be the same kind of error as counting God as one more physical thing. God is beyond material counting, but this means more than denying “God is one more thing.” It may mean that if Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God, the Oneness of God is so great that it is uninjured even by the Incarnation of God the Son. If the Oneness of God is on a higher plane my having one pen on my desk, perhaps it is on high enough of a plane that it is not threatened by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being the One God.

God is transcendent: he transcends, is beyond, anything and everything to be found in all creation. That is part of why, when we say that God is One, we mean something different from counting one pen—and something deeper. And part of this transcendence is something like heat. Depending on how tough we are, we might, or might not, be able to pick something up after it is hot from prolonged sunlight. Few of us would want to pick up a heavy black crowbar that has been soaking in summer sun and heat on the asphalt. Most of us want oven mitts, or some surrogate like a folded towel, to pick up something that has been in a hot 450° oven—it’s too hot to touch with bare hands. But even a good oven mitt has limits: I would not want, even with the best oven mitt I’ve used, to reach into a blacksmith’s furnace and pull out a large piece of iron so hot that it’s getting mushy. But there is something about the one God that is transcendently hot: hotter than red-hot iron, hotter than white-hot iron, hotter than a river of rapidly boiling steel, hotter than the heart of the sun, hotter than the Big Bang. The transcendent God is hotter than the heat of fire, plasma, and the Big Bang.

Many of the controversies in early centuries of the Christian Church were about Christ as the bridge between God and his Creation—because if the divine nature is of such heat, then the Creation needs an oven mitt to be in contact with its Creator. Arius proposed one solution, that the oven mitt was the foremost and unique creation. The Orthodox response was that this wasn’t good enough: a created oven mitt could insulate against a created heat, but only a truly transcendent bridge, or oven mitt, or mediator, could allow us to meet God without being destroyed: not only the fiery coal, but the oven mitt must be absolutely and fully divine. And here we can glimpse why the Orthodox Church found Trinitarian theology so necessary: she found, in fact, that the one God, if the logic is worked out and he is properly understood, to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that the doctrine of the Trinity is the radical understanding of the One God.

I mention this to guard against a reaction some may have: the reaction that says that Islam really believes in one God, while Christianity has to cross its fingers to say that. Now let me continue:

There are some people who believe that Islam is later than Christianity and extends Christian beliefs: Islam is Christianity with things added. This is quite the opposite of the truth! One way to see beyond this point is to ask the question, “What is said in Islamic worship that an Orthodox would wince at saying? And what is said in Orthodox worship that a Muslim might wince at?”

There are a number of things in Islamic worship that an Orthodox would believe: God is said to be One, to be merciful, to be the Creator of the world, and so on and so forth, and all of this the Orthodox believes. What the Orthodox would not be able to say, in good conscience, is that Muhammed is God’s Prophet. That would come close to the one thing that an Orthodox would squirm about agreeing to.

Now what about a Muslim in an Orthodox “divine liturgy”? God is said to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Mary is praised as the Mother of God, icons are warp and woof to worship, and saints, perhaps called divine, share in the glory of God. Even the term “divine liturgy” may not be liked. And each of these is related to the Incarnation.

The Orthodox Church realized the doctrine of the Trinity as something it could not deny, precisely in the wake of wrestling with questions about the Incarnation. Perhaps it would be doubtful to say that the doctrine of the Trinity is a mere part of the doctrine of the Incarnation. What would not be doubtful is to say that the doctrine of the Trinity was articulated out of the Orthodox Church wrestling with heresies which gave a deficient understanding of the Incarnation. The Church proclaimed the doctrine of the Trinity after affirming what might be called “maximum Christology,” that Christ was everything he could be: maximally divine, maximally human, maximally united, and maximally preserving the divine and human even as they were united.

Now we get into territory some Protestants may be uncomfortable with: the great and scandalous phrase, “Mother of God.” Some may be eager to point out that “Mother of God” reflects a Greek term, theotokos, which might more accurately be translated as “Birth-Giver of God,” as “tokos” refers to birth better than the full freight of the English “mother.” In fact one could go further: “tokos,” in Greek, is a word used to describe both the person who gives birth and the one who is born, and on out-of-context, legalistic grounds, “theotokos” could mean “the one to whom God gave birth,” and one could make a mirror image of that switch to say that Christ, o prototokos twn nekrwn (Rev. 1:5), is “the dead’s chief birthgiver,” dodging the more sensible and customary rendering that he is “the firstborn from among the dead.”

This kind of cleverness is all very nice, but it is unhelpful in understanding the theology. The reason the term “theotokos” is significant is something that happened in Arius’s wake. Arius said that Christ was “a creature, but not as one of the creatures,” a unique first creature through whom God created every other, lesser creature. The Church’s response was, in essence, “If that is Christ, he is an oven mitt that will be incinerated if it touches the divine fire. Not good enough.” In Arius’s wake, it was clearly on the table that Christ had to be considered fully divine, and fully human. But one person, Nestorius, said that Christ was fully divine and fully human, but not quite fully united. The controversy came to a head when Nestorius said that Mary could and should be called, “christotokos,” “Mother of Christ,” but that it was absolutely inappropriate to call her “theotokos,” “Mother of God.” The verdict of the Church was that Nestorius had divided the Christ, because he would let the Mother of Jesus be called the Mother of Christ, but he denied that Christ was united enough that you could actually go so far as to say that she was simply the Mother of God.

The decision to call Mary the Mother of God is a move to protect the unity of Christ—that what could be said of the man Jesus could be said of God the Son, and what could be said of the Son of God could be said of the man Jesus. This is why some Christians speak—correctly—of the crucified God, because Christ is so united that it was inescapably God who was crucified if Jesus was crucified, and by the same token Christians insisted on speaking of God the Son, because Christ is so united that it is inescapably God who was born in her womb if she was the Mother of Jesus.

The reason Nestorius could only call Mary the Mother of Christ, and not the Mother of God, was because his christology drove a wedge between Jesus the man and God the Son that caused him to pull back from the full force of “theotokos.” Is it a valid response to try to be picky about the Greek and say that “theotokos” is really more accurately translated “Bearer of God”? If you’re really that concerned about linguistics and Greek, possibly, but in my experience that kind of argument is a matter of “Everybody has two reasons for everything he does—a good reason, and the real reason.” The good reason is a linguistic concern that goes above and beyond the call of duty of meticulous precision in translation… but a real reason is one of the fixations, almost one of the theological allergies, that arose out of the medieval Catholic West being very concerned about ferreting out idolatry, that Mary the theotokos receives reverence that God alone should receive. This is a sensible enough objection, if you forget how far Incarnation goes: Mary the theotokos gave Christ his humanity, and he gave her something in the exchange. But the force of the argument may leave it legitimate in English to call Mary “the Bearer of God,” but provides no theological justification to say, “On a purely material level, I have to acknowledge that Mary gave birth to God, but I am absolutely not going to say that Mary exercised the spiritual office of motherhood to the God to whom I technically have to acknowledge she gave birth.” If the theology is acknowledged that is behind saying that Mary gave birth to God, full stop, it is by the same argument necessary to say that she exercised the full human and spiritual office of motherhood to God, full stop. This is how the logic of the Incarnation unfolds.

And the logic unfolds. The parents of Mary, the Mother of God, are remembered as “the ancestors of God, Joachim and Anna,” and the icon depicting James, considered “the Lord’s brother” (Gal 1:19), has in Greek, “o adelphotheou:” “the brother of God.” And there is a deeper way that this logic unfolds.

The Incarnation is to happen in each person. Saints are people in whom the Incarnation shines brightly, but we were made for the Incarnation. Some exemplars who provide shining examples of the Incarnation are held forth as saints, but we were all made for divine, uncreated life they share in. The saints live lives out of the Incarnation, and they are part of how the Incarnation is shown to us.

In Orthodox worship, there may or may not be explicit words spoken about icons, but even if not a word is spoken about icons, actions may speak louder than words. A Muslim visitor to Orthodox worship will see something very different from the inside of a mosque, which may be adorned by quite beautiful abstract patterns, but in which anything like an icon is forbidden: pictures as such are forbidden, and it is in particular forbidden to make pictures of Mohammed: perhaps quite a perceptive rule reflecting an insight that a picture of Mohammed would not be likely to be, in the Western sense, simply a nice, inspiring picture on a wall.

What exactly is going on with icons may take some time to understand, but a Western visitor may notice that Orthodox seem to be treating icons differently from just a nice picture on a wall. The Orthodox do not simply stand back with an admiring gaze; they interact with the pictures and kiss them. There may be a line of people standing to pay respects to an icon, and people walking into the temple may almost seem like they are introducing themselves to the icons or greeting them, as one may greet friends one meets in a room.

Orthodox have traditionally called icons “windows of Heaven,” and I would like to take a look at what that means. One obvious meaning today is that they are spiritually a view into a larger world, and I would not discount that. People like to work, and perhaps work better, in an office with a window, and I would not discount that either. But it may help to look at some layers of that image that are harder to see today.

Artificial lighting has been around for a long time: lanterns were good enough in Edison’s time that when he invented the light bulb, many people responded, “Why do we need it? What does it give that an oil lantern does not?” But in fact light bulbs do something that is not in easy reach for candles and lanterns. If you have entered an Orthodox temple when all electric lights were off, there may have been dozens of lit candles—possibly hundreds—but this did not stop the room for being very dark. If you’re in a dark room and can barely see by candlelight for an hour a day, it may seem memorable and romantic; but a candle offers “just enough light to get by,” rather than “as much light as you really want,” and before the light bulb became common, work and activities tended to stop when the daylight fled: if you want to wrap something up, candlelight may give you more time, but if you want enough light to go full steam ahead, then you must either have daylight or a bright, electric light. Only with the electric light can it be common and ordinary for people to be working or playing well into the night, not particuarly caring about the hindrance of there being no sunlight worthy of the name. Before the light bulb, inside as well as out, you needed sunlight to really see outside, and you needed sunlight to really see inside. Given all this, let me ask a question: what more is a window if you can’t flip a switch and turn on the lights?

A window, without having lights, was almost everything that a light bulb is to us. Have you ever woken up, groggy, and fumbled around for the light switch? Have you ever noticed, during a power outage, how hard basic tasks become when you try, for instance, to use a windowless bathroom? Have you ever tried, at a friend’s house, to find the light switch for the bathroom when that part of the house is dark? We have good enough light bulbs that we can fail to understand how hard it is to function in darkness. But in a world without light bulbs, windows are the light bulbs. You don’t just look out the window to see what the weather is like; you can see inside because of the light that comes through windows.

There is another insight to be gathered from glass panes. Today, if one visualizes a window, it seems almost by definition to have a glass pane that provided another layer between what was inside the window, and what was outside. It was not always that way: if one looks at the great age of stained glass windows in the West, saying that a window normally has a glass pane is like saying that a wristwatch is normally a unique creation handcrafted by a master jeweller. (For ages, people knew how to make glass, but making glass was prohibitively expensive, and glass itself was rather precious.) I have seen handcrafted timepieces in museums, and if I had a year’s salary to blow, I could get a master jeweller’s unique creation, but my normal expectation when I see a wristwatch is that it’s mass-produced just like my wristwatch. Today a wristwatch is normally mass-produced, and before a couple of centuries ago a window was normally without glass. In another age, if the bugs were bad enough, a window might let light in through a covering, perhaps of vellum, that would let the window serve as a light bulb without making the insect count that much worse. Quite often, a window didn’t just let in light. It was also something that let in wind and the outside world: it was something wind could blow through.

To say this much is to miss something important, and something that does not particularly require a history-lesson: the “window of Heaven” is like a window one looks through to see a loved one one has been waiting for. Icons are not landscapes raised to a higher spiritual plane, or purely architectural, or a still life. All of those may make beautiful art, but if icons are windows of Heaven, they show people. They may show Christ, or his mother, or his saints, or angels, or people at a decisive moment, or the Trinity as shown through three angels. Most are icons of saints. This is to say that most icons are icons of people in whom Christ has become Incarnate… and icons are part of the Incarnation unfolding.

The Orthodox understanding is that you are missing the point of the Incarnation if you affirm that the Son of God became fully a man, but then deny the maxim of the ages, “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 and the Son of Man that men might become gods and the Sons of God.” To say that the Incarnation happened in Christ but is not to happen in us is worse than saying, “The operation was a success, but the patient died.” It is more like, “The grandmaster in chess played brilliantly until he reached an invincible position but then resigned in defeat,” or, “The operation was a success, but the physician refused to save the patient’s life,” or “The medical researcher discovered the perfect cure for cancer and then refused to share his results or let them save lives.” Since the earliest centuries the Orthodox Church has believed that the Incarnation did not stop when Mary bore the God-Man in her womb. Christ is meant to be Incarnate in Christians in every age.

(I’ve noticed that some of my friends list their Facebook “Religious Views” as “Follower of Jesus.” There’s something in that modest way of putting it that tempts me to list my own views as, “Orthodox Christian: ‘Follower of Jesus’ is another way of describing an alter Christus, Latin for ‘another Christ’!”)

Christ is the Savior and Lord of the whole Creation: there is indeed something very special about being human, but the sanctifying reach of the Incarnation is a sanctifying reach that extends to matter. The rule elsewhere in theology is that the deepest symbols are symbols that represent and embody what they represent, and it is the Orthodox experience that icons are just that degree of symbol.

One Protestant student at an Orthodox seminary mentioned, as a local oddity, that when he said he didn’t venerate icons, asked him if he believed in the Incarnation. To him the question was a complete non sequitur. But the Orthodox spiritual experience is that the veneration of icons is part of the Incarnation unfolding, and saying that you believe in the Incarnation but not that the Incarnation unfolds into icons, is a bit like saying that you want to be a scholar but don’t want to be troubled with reading books.

I would like to make one last remark about culture and the Incarnation, before shifting focus, from being primarily concerned about Orthodoxy and Islam, to being primarily concerned about Orthodoxy and the Reformation.

At least of the major groups of Orthodox Christians is Arabic. In the Arab world, there is a strong Muslim majority, but many parts of the Arab world have a significant Christian minority, and more specifically an Orthodox minority.

One aspect of different cultures are rules about touch—when it is and isn’t permitted, among other things. As may be guessed, the devout Muslim practice has much stricter rules than American culture, at least about men touching women: if I were to be introduced to a devout Muslim woman in many parts of the Arabic world—which is something of an if, as those cultures see many fewer reasons why such an interaction would be appropriate; the idea of “just hanging out” would seem strange—a devout Muslim woman may well place her hand on her heart and make a slight bow as a gesture of respect and acknowledgment, but shaking hands would be a big deal, and probably seen as at best questionably appropriate. In general, the lines of what would be considered appropriate would call for much less interaction, and even a tap on the shoulder would not obviously be “no big deal.” There are very different rules on touch, and a handshake with palm against palm is emphatically not “no big deal.”

The Arabic expression of Orthodoxy shows some Muslim influences; in some ways, it would be rather surprising if it didn’t. However, as regards touch, it is relatively common for Arab Christians to greet one another with kisses, including men and women giving each other kisses: this can be part of normal social interaction or of the Divine Liturgy.

If you are wondering what relevance this has to do with religion, as it seems obviously a cultural detail, it is one example of what an anthropologist would call “culture” being tied to worship and its implications. Such a kiss as is found in Arabic forms of Orthodoxy is also found in Slavic forms of Orthodoxy; the practice may differ slightly, and greeting with kisses may be more associated with special events, but both practices are the same reality.

In the Greek New Testament, the main word for worship literally means to emphatically kiss or bow. That may not survive in English translation, but there’s something there, and it is not an accident. In Orthodox worship, to kiss an icon is to display reverence that ultimately points to God: John the Damascene and others have been very clear that the respect you show to an icon passes through to God. It is an extension of the Incarnation. A kiss between Orthodox Christians is not simply a cultural detail; it is connected to the kiss given to icons, and it is connected to reverence to one in whom Christ is, to some degree, Incarnate. Orthodox speak today of people as living icons, and though this manner of speech has not always been in fashion, there is a connection between a kiss saluting an icon that is ultimately of Christ, and a kiss saluting a fellow believer who is being transformed into the likeness of Christ. And what is particularly interesting about Arabic forms of Orthodoxy is that the “custom” has survived over a millenium of Muslim rule. (It’s really not just a custom; if it were “just a custom,” it would not have survived nearly so long.)

Having looked at Orthodoxy, Islam, and the Incarnation, my point has not really been to say that Islam does not believe in the Incarnation; that much could be deduced from any decent encyclopedia entry on the topic. My real point of interest has been to look at exactly how Islam does not believe in the Incarnation: not only would devout Muslims be disturbed by the idea that God could become Incarnate, or that that would be fitting to God, but Muslim culture very clearly and consistently works out what it means to refuse to entertain the Incarnation. Actions not only speak louder than words; they also speak in more detail than words, and they can reveal things that words do not.

Now I would like to turn my attention from Orthodoxy and Islam, to Orthodoxy and the Reformation.

Perhaps this is setting limits on Protestantism, but most of the conservative Protestantism I know—or, rather, all—believes on philosophical grounds every finding about the Incarnation from the Church Councils. Every one of the Christologies that was deemed inadequate—including some I have not mentioned—is something Protestants and the better Reformers dismiss as out of bounds. What I have hinted at by referring to maximum Christology is something considered non-negotiable: Reformers may not ascribe definitive authority to the Church Councils in the sense that Orthodox do, but the findings about the Incarnation are effectively treated as “If you don’t believe this, you’re not Christian.” And so it would seem odd to question how much the Reformers believed in the Incarnation, but that is exactly what I want to question.

How much of what I have said about Islam could be said of the Reformation, or parts of it? I was thinking of Calvinism at some early parts of this essay. I cannot say that Calvinism encourages a fatalism that is languid about action. The “Protestant work ethic” we proverbially speak of is in fact a Calvinist work ethic, and Calvinists are often hard workers. Calvinist scholars proclaim in word and deed that “thinking Christianly” is a big deal. It would be a mistake to say that this aspect of Calvinist practice could have nothing to do with their theology. Therefore, what I have said earlier about Islam being conducive to inshallah, bukhara, malesh should not be applied to Calvinist Christianity.

As I have encountered it, Calvinism does not live a fatalistic life.

However, that does not take away a profound point of contact: Islam does not lead people to believe that they were created to be conversation partners for God, fashioned to contribute to the conversation. Calvinism is less than enthusiastic in trumpeting a theology of human contribution; some very serious Calvinists express the concern that if we believe we can contribute to our conversation with God, we have, in the title of one book, “No Place for [God’s] Sovereignty: What’s Wrong with Freewill Theism” and if we understand God as sovereign, we can contribute nothing but a rubber stamp to God working in us. And in that regard, Calvinism, a bit like Islam, falls subject to Chesterton’s critique: “It denies the existence of man.”

And in that regard, Orthodoxy can raise the question of how far Calvinism really believes in the Incarnation.

My own experience with the Mennonite Church—even a Mennonite Church relaxed enough to encourage artistic impulses—is that the Mennonite Church worked out, very consistently, what it means to say that images can have no helpful spiritual reality. What I saw and experienced extended well beyond images: it meant that “spirit” and “matter” were in almost separate compartments: there was a special exception for people who were composed of both spirit and matter, and there was a phenomenal miracle when the Son of God became man, but these were exceptions that ran against the usual course of things.

In Orthodoxy, our physical world is pregnant with spirit: men are both matter and spirit because we are the microcosm a crowning jewel to Creation. We are the masterpiece of an excellent corpus, not a pearl crowded by worthless sand, and there is a mountain of differencve between saying “They’re all pretty good, but this one is the best,” and saying, “This is the only good one—the rest are atrocious.” It is the same difference as the difference between saying that spirit and matter are in separate water-tight compartments separated by a chasm except in the case of humans, and saying that the material world was made to share in spiritual glory, and that spiritual and material Creation are woven into the same masterwork with mankind as its ornament and jewel. This difference parallels the difference between saying on the one hand that there’s normal human life and then there’s one exception, Christ, who is so unlike what we normally mean by ‘human’, and on the other hand saying that Christ is the apex of human existence, the one man who fully lived the stature the human race was created for, the one whom St. Paul calls “the last Adam” (see I Cor. 15:45-49).

What I saw in Mennonite spiritual practice was that the iconoclasm was a microcosm of a world where people alone of the whole Creation bridged a chasm that otherwise separated spirit and matter, and the Incarnation was an exception: I never heard, “The Divine became human that the human might become divine.” The denial of Incarnation in icons left a spiritual world with no place for an Incarnation that was to take place in people: the Incarnation began and ended when the Son of God became a man.

And now on to the holy kiss.

I remember being shocked when an Orthodox friend mentioned, in a matter of fact way, that Orthodox Christians greet each other with kisses to celebrate (in this case) Pascha, and that this was rooted in the Biblical words about greeting one another with a holy kiss. This was so different from anything I had seen among Protestants, and I would like to talk about the contrast.

The best way I can concisely describe how the holy kiss was viewed is that, when Evangelicals want to give an example of cultural wackiness that somehow ended up in the Bible, there is one standard example that comes up: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”

I found the response when I suggested that those words be taken seriously to be essentially the same among the faithful and among (conservative) Bible scholars at Cambridge: if you say that “Greet one another with a holy kiss” should be given attention as part of God’s revelation, you might as well have sprouted a second head. The response from both groups was essentially culture shock: if I pressed my point, people might see that there was a point worth making, perhaps tell me I was on to something—but even when I pressed my point at Cambridge, not one scholar acknowledged my point that the verse admitted a study for doctrinal content. If I was to study the holy kiss in the Bible, it had to be a study of a cultural and historical detail, used for studying the Bible as a historical document, rather than as something doctrinal, spiritual, or otherwise relevant for us today. I wanted to do a spiritual and doctrinal study, and that was not allowed except as doctrinal and spiritual elements would occasionally come up in a study of history and customs.

My point in mentioning this is that people didn’t just disagree when I said “Greet one another with a holy kiss” is revelation and of spiritual benefit; it was so far out of the realm of things people could conceive as being taken seriously that it caused culture shock: my first battle was never about being agreed with; it was getting my position to be taken seriously. This seems to offer a very strong pedigree in saying that the holy kiss does not have much of a proper theological place to be put in. And if the holy kiss is a practice that derives from the Incarnation—if it is connected to the kiss of reverence that feeds into a major Greek term for worship of God—then this near-total inability to conceive of “Greet one another with a holy kiss” as God’s revelation for us is a near-total lack of needed and Incarnational soil for that practice to be planted in or grow out of. And this would seem to be another area where the Reformation attempts an unwavering and absolute faith in the Incarnation, but is very ill-prepared to live out a classical unfolding of the conviction.

When I was at Calvin, I remember one professor laying theological foundations. To address the question, “What were we made for?” he gave the answer, “Worship and culture,” only he deliberately gave it in Latin: “Cultas et culturas.” The reason is that, in English, ‘worship’ and ‘culture’ may be two separate words, but in Latin they spring from the same root, and the Latin exposes the connection. There may, or may not, be other things I disagree with him about. I don’t disagree with the point he was making there; I think it is beautiful, and I might press it further by saying that worship becomes incarnate in culture: worship gives its practical expression in culture. A culture bears witness to the nature of whatever God or god(s) its society worships. It bears a profound witness.

My thesis for much of this paper is that Orthodoxy demonstrates the unfolding of the Incarnation, and Islam demonstrates the unfolding of denying the Incarnation. There are many other factors at play, but several details about Orthodox practice and culture demonstrate what practical belief in the Incarnation may look like, and several details about Islamic practice and culture demonstrate what practical rejection of the Incarnation may look like. And if so, this may raise some very interesting questions about the Reformation and even the more conservative Protestant Christianity.

As far as ideas and statements go, absolute and full belief in the Incarnation is non-negotiable across the board for different forms of Protestant Christianity: there may be a lot of difference between the more conservative heirs of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, but asserting what the Councils asserted about Christ and the Incarnation remains entirely non-negotiable, and probably will remains so for as long as conservative Protestant Christianity is around.

However, in terms of cultural working out, there is real question about how far Protestant Christianity lets the Incarnation unfold: I have read very few Protestants solidly deny that the Incarnation ends with Christ, and in practical terms, many would agree to disagree with Calvinism over the question of free will, but I have het to hear the question of whether Calvinism, in denying man anything to contribute to his salvation save a rubber stamp, denies the reality of man and in so doing cuts down the Incarnation. None of the Evangelical critiques I’ve read of Calvinism say that Calvinism jeopardizes the Incarnation. That the Incarnation could unfurl so that it is right to call Mary the Mother of God, or direct reverence to saints—even Protestants who agree to disagree may be a bit squeamish, and the idea that this is a proper consequence of the Incarnation, almost its purpose, is not one that comes up. Icons as one feature of a sanctified cosmos with Christ as its head (Eph 1:22), don’t come up, and it is my impression that where there are no icons, there is a chasm between matter and spirit, and the unity of spirit and matter in Christ and the human person may be an exception rather than the highest example. There may be other issues to be raised as well: is the doctrine of the Invisible Church a doctrine of the Virtual Incarnation? The common thread running through these things is that the Incarnation may be asserted on a philosophical level by Protestants, but it does not seem to unfur as it might as the concrete culture plays out. The cultural shape of Protestant Christianity raises questions about how much practical belief there is in the Incarnation.

If the question is, “Where do we go from here?” the answer might be in the closing words of Mark 9:17-24 (RSV):

And one of the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a dumb spirit; and wherever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.”

And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.”

And they brought the boy to him; and when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth.

And Jesus asked his father, “How long has he had this?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.”

And Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible to him who believes.”

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!

Lesser Icons: Reflections on Faith, Icons, and Art

Cover for The Best of Jonathan's Corner

C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader opens with a chapter called “The Picture in the Bedroom,” which begins, “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” Not long into the chapter, we read:

They were in Lucy’s room, sitting on the edge of her bed and looking at a picture on the opposite wall. It was the only picture in the house that they liked. Aunt Alberta didn’t like it at all (that was why it was put away in a little back room upstairs), but she couldn’t get rid of it because it had been a wedding present from someone she did not want to offend.

It was a picture of a ship—a ship sailing straight towards you. Her prow was gilded and shaped like the head of a dragon with a wide-open mouth. She had only one mast and one large, square sail which was a rich purple. The sides of the ship—what you could see of them where the gilded wings of the dragon ended—were green. She had just run up to the top of one glorious blue wave, and the nearer slope of that wave came down towards you, with streaks and bubbles on it. She was obviously running fast before a gay wind, listing over a little on her port side. (By the way, if you are going to read this story at all, and if you don’t know already, you had better get it into your head that the left of a ship when you are looking ahead is port, and the right is starboard.) All of the sunlight fell on her from that side, and the water on that side was full of greens and purples. On the other, it was darker blue from the shadow of the ship.

“The question is,” said Edmund, “whether it doesn’t make things worse, looking at a Narnian ship when you can’t get there.”

“Even looking is better than nothing,” said Lucy. “And she is such a very Narnian ship.”

“Still playing your old game?” said Eustace Clarence, who had been listening outside the door and now came grinning into the room. Last year, when he had been staying with the Pevensies, he had managed to hear them all talking of Narnia and he loved teasing them about it. He thought of course that they were making it all up; and as he was far too stupid to make anything up himself, he did not approve of that.

“You’re not wanted here,” said Edmund curtly.

“I’m trying to think of a limerick,” said Eustace. “Something like this:

Some kids who played games about Narnia
Got gradually balmier and balmier—”
“Well, Narnia and balmier don’t rhyme, to begin with,” said Lucy.

“It’s an assonance,” said Eustace.

“Don’t ask him what an assy-thingummy is,” said Edmund. “He’s only longing to be asked. Say nothing and perhaps he’ll go away.”

Most boys, on meeting a reception like this, would have either cleared out or flared up. Eustace did neither. He just hung about grinning, and presently began talking again.

“Do you like that picture?” he asked.

“For Heaven’s sake don’t let him get started about Art and all that,” said Edmund hurriedly, but Lucy, who was very truthful, had already said, “Yes, I do. I like it very much.”

“It’s a rotten picture,” said Eustace.

“You won’t see it if you step outside,” said Edmund.

“Why do you like it?” said Eustace to Lucy.

“Well, for one thing,” said Lucy, “I like it because the ship looks as if it were really moving. And the water looks as if it were really wet. And the waves look as if they were really going up and down.”

Of course Eustace knew lots of answers to this, but he didn’t say anything. The reason was that at that very moment he looked at the waves and saw that they did look very much indeed as if they were going up and down. He had only once been in a ship (and then only so far as the Isle of Wight) and had been horribly seasick. The look of the waves in the picture made him feel sick again. He turned rather green and tried another look. And then all three children were staring with open mouths.

What they were seeing may be hard to believe when you read it in print, but it was almost as hard to believe when you saw it happening. The things in the picture were moving. It didn’t look at all like a cinema either; the colours were too real and clean and out-of-doors for that. Down went the prow of the ship into the wave and up went a great shock of spray. And then up went the wave behind her, and her stern and her deck became visible for the first time, and then disappeared as the next wave came to meet her and her bows went up again. At the same moment an exercise book which had been lying beside Edmund on the bed flapped, rose and sailed through the air to the wall behind him, and Lucy felt all her hair whipping round her face as it does on a windy day. And this was a windy day; but the wind was blowing out of the picture towards them. And suddenly with the wind came the noises—the swishing of waves and the slap of water against the ship’s sides and the creaking and the overall high steady roar of air and water. But it was the smell, the wild, briny smell, which really convinced Lucy that she was not dreaming.

“Stop it,” came Eustace’s voice, squeaky with fright and bad temper. “It’s some silly trick you two are playing. Stop it. I’ll tell Alberta—Ow!”

The other two were much more accustomed to adventures but, just exactly as Eustace Clarence said, “Ow,” they both said, “Ow” too. The reason was that a great cold, salt splash had broken right out of the frame and they were breathless from the smack of it, besides being wet through.

“I’ll smash the rotten thing,” cried Eustace; and then several things happened at the same time. Eustace rushed towards the picture. Edmund, who knew something about magic, sprang after him, warning him to look out and not be a fool. Lucy grabbed at him from the other side and was dragged forward. And by this time either they had grown much smaller or the picture had grown bigger. Eustace jumped to try to pull it off the wall and found himself standing on the frame; in front of him was not glass but real sea, and wind and waves rushing up to the frame as they might to a rock. There was a second of struggling and shouting, and just as they thought they had got their balance a great blue roller surged up round them, swept them off their feet, and drew them down into the sea. Eustace’s despairing cry suddenly ended as the water got into his mouth.

I don’t know that C.S. Lewis was thinking about icons or Orthodoxy when he wrote this, and I am reluctant to assume that C.S. Lewis was doing what would be convenient for the claims I want to make at icons. Perhaps there are other caveats that should also be made: but the caveats are not the whole truth.

I am not aware of a better image of what an icon is and what an icon does than this passage in Lewis. Michel Quenot’s The Icon: A Window on the Kingdom is excellent and there are probably more out there, but I haven’t come across as much of an evocative image as the opening to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

I don’t mean that the first time you see an icon, you will be swept off your feet. There was a long time where I found them to be clumsy art that was awkward to look at. I needed to warm to them, and appreciate something that works very differently from Western art. I know that other people have had these immediate piercing experiences with icons, but appreciating icons has been a process of coming alive for me. But much the same could be said of my learning French or Greek, where I had to struggle at first and then slowly began to appreciate what is there. This isn’t something Orthodoxy has a complete monopoly on; some of the time Roman Catholic piety can have something much in the same vein. But even if it’s hard to say that there’s something in icons that is nowhere else, there is something in icons that I had to learn to appreciate.

Icon of the Holy Transfiguration, Anonymous
Icon of the Holy Transfiguration, Anonymous

A cradle Orthodox believer at my parish explained that when she looks at an icon of the Transfiguration, she is there. The Orthodox understanding of presence and memory is not Western and not just concerned with neurons firing in the brain; it means that icons are portals that bring the spiritual presence of the saint or archetypal event that they portray. An icon can be alive, some more than others, and some people can sense this spiritually.

Icons are called windows of Heaven. Fundamental to icon and to symbol is that when the Orthodox Church proclaims that we are the image of God, it doesn’t mean that we are a sort of detached miniature copy of God. It doesn’t mean that we are a detached anything. It is a claim that to be human is to be in relation to God. It is a claim that we manifest God’s presence and that the breath we breathe is the breath of God. What this means for icons is that when the cradle Orthodox woman I just mentioned says that she is there at the Transfiguration, then that icon is like the picture of the Narnian ship. If we ask her, “Where are you?” then saying “Staring at painted wood” is like saying that someone is “talking to an electronic device” when that person is using a cell phone to talk with a friend. In fact the error is deeper.

Icon of the Glykophilousa (Sweetly-Kissing) Mother of God, Anonymous
Icon of the Glykophilousa (Sweetly-Kissing) Mother of God, Anonymous

An icon of a saint is not intended to inform the viewer what a saint looked like. Its purpose is to connect the viewer with Christ, or Mary the Theotokos, or one of the saints or a moment we commemorate, like the Annunciation when Gabriel told humble Mary that she would bear God, or the Transfiguration, when for a moment Heaven shone through and Christ shone as Christians will shine and as saints sometimes shine even in this life. I don’t know all of the details of how the art is put together—although it is art—but the perspective lines vanish not in the depths of the picture but behind the viewer because the viewer is part of the picture. The viewer is invited to cross himself, bow before, and kiss the icon in veneration: the rule is not “Look, but don’t touch.” any more than the rule in our father’s house is “Look, but don’t touch.” The gold background is there because it is the metal of light; these windows of Heaven are not simply for people to look into them and see the saint radiant with Heaven’s light, but Heaven looks in and sees us. When I approach icons I have less the sense that I am looking at these saints, and Heaven, than that they are looking at me. The icon’s purpose is not, as C.S. Lewis’s picture, to connect people with Narnia, but to draw people into Heaven, which in the Orthodox understanding must begin in this life. It is less theatrical, but in the end the icon offers something that the Narnian picture does not.

It is with this theological mindset that Bishop KALLISTOS Ware is fond, in his lectures, of holding up a photograph of something obviously secular—such as a traffic intersection—and saying, “In Greece, this is an icon. It’s not a holy icon, but it’s an icon.”

Door (KPOYETE), CJS Hayward
Door (KPOYETE), CJS Hayward
(Not a holy icon, but an icon)

That, I believe, provides as good a departure as any for an Orthodox view of art. I would never say that icons are inferior art, and I would be extremely hesitant to say that art is equal to icons. But they’re connected. Perhaps artwork is lesser icons. Perhaps it is indistinct icons. But art is connected to iconography, and ever if that link is severed so that art becomes non-iconic, it dies.

Another illustration may shed light on the relation between iconography and other art. The Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ to Orthodox. It is not simply a sacrament, but the sacrament of sacraments, and the sacrament which all other sacraments are related. And there are ways the Orthodox Church requires that this Holy Communion be respected: it is to be prepared for with prayer and fasting, and under normal circumstances it is only received by people who are of one mind as the early Church. It encompasses, inseparably, mystic communion with God and communion with the full brothers and sisters of the Orthodox Church.

How does an ordinary meal around a table with family compare? In one sense, it doesn’t. But to say that and stop is to miss something fundamental. Eating a meal around a table with friends and family is communion. It is not Holy Communion, but it is communion.

A shared meal is a rite that is part of the human heritage. It persists across times, cultures, and religions. This is recognized more clearly in some cultures than others, but i.e. Orthodox Jewish culture says that to break bread is only something you do when you are willing to become real friends. The term “breaking of bread” in the New Testament carries a double meaning; it can mean either the Eucharist or a common meal. A common meal may not have Orthodox making the same astounding claims we make about the Eucharist, but it is a real communion. This may be why a theologian made repeatedly singled out the common meal in the Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Education Day publication to answer questions of what we should do today when technology is changing our lives, sometimes for the better but quite often not. I myself have not made that effort much, and I can say that there is a difference between merely eating and filling my animal needs, and engaging in the precious ritual, the real communion, of a common meal around a table.

If we compare a common meal with the Eucharist, it seems very small. But if we look at a common meal and the community and communion around that meal (common, community, and communion all being words that are related to each other and stem from the same root), next to merely eating to serve our animal needs, then all of the sudden we see things that can be missed if we only look at what separates the Eucharist from lesser communions. A common meal is communion. It is not Holy Communion, but it is communion.

In the same sense, art is not the equal of sacred iconography. My best art, even my best religious art, does not merit the treatment of holy icons. But neither is art, or at least good art, a separate sort of thing from iconography, and if that divorce is ever effected (it has been, but I’ll wait on that for how), then it generates from being art as a meal that merely fills animal, bodily needs without being communion degenerates from what a common meal should be. And in that sense I would assert that art is lesser iconography. And the word “lesser” should be given less weight than “iconography.” I may not create holy icons, but I work to create icons in all of my art, from writing to painting to other creations.

In my American culture—this may be different in other areas of the world, even if American culture has a strong influence—there are two great obstacles to connecting with art. These obstacles to understanding need to be denounced. These two obstacles can be concisely described as:

  • The typical secular approach to art.
  • The typical Christian approach to art.

If I’m going to denounce those two, it’s not clear how much wiggle room I am left over to affirm—and my goal is not merely to affirm but embrace an understanding of art. Let me begin to explain myself.

Let’s start with a red flag that provides just a glimpse of the mainstream Christian view of art. In college, when I thought it was cool to be a cynic and use my mind to uncover a host of hidden evils, I defined “Christian Contemporary Music” in Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary to be “A genre of song designed primarily to impart sound teaching, such as the doctrine that we are sanctified by faith and not by good taste in music.”

May God be praised, that was not the whole truth in Christian art then, and it is even further from being the whole truth today—I heartily applaud the “Wow!” music videos, and there is a rich stream of exceptions. But this doesn’t change the fact that the #1 selling Christian series today is the Left Behind series, which with apologies to Dorothy Parker, does not have asingle book that is to be set aside lightly. (They are all to be hurled with great force!)

If I want to explain what I would object to instead of simply making incendiary remarks about Christian arts, let me give a concrete example. I would like to discuss something that I discussed with a filmmaker at a Mennonite convention a couple of years I converted to Orthodoxy. I did not set out to criticize, and I kept my mouth shut about certain things.

What I did do was to outline a film idea for a film that would start out indistinguishably from an action-adventure movie. It would have one of the hero’s friends held captive by some cardboard-cutout villains. There is a big operation to sneak in and deftly rescue him, and when that fails, all Hell breaks loose and there is a terrific action-adventure style firefight. There is a dramatic buildup to the hero getting in the helicopter, and as they are leaving, one of the villain’s henchmen comes running with a shotgun. Before he can aim, the hero blasts away his knee with a hollow-nosed .45.

The camera surprisingly does not follow the helicopter in its rush to glory, but instead focuses on the henchman for five or ten excruciating minutes as he curses and writhes in agony. Then the film slows down to explore what that one single gunshot means to the henchman for the remaining forty years of his life, as he nursed a spiritual wound of lust for vengeance that was infinitely more tragic than his devastating physical wound.

The filmmaker liked the idea, or at least that’s what he thought. He saw a different and better ending than what I envisioned. It would be the tale of the henchman’s journey of forgiveness, building to a dramatic scene where he is capable of killing the hero and beautifully lets go of revenge. And as much as I believe in forgiveness and letting go of revenge, this “happy ending” (roughly speaking) bespoke an incommensurable gulf between us.

The difference amounts to a difference of love. Not that art has to cram in as much love, or message about love or forgiveness, as it can. If that happens, it is fundamentally a failure on the part of the artist, and more specifically it is a failure of a creator to have proper love for his creation. My story would not show much love in action, and it is specifically meant to leave audiences not only disturbed but shell shocked and (perhaps) sickened at how violence is typically shown by Hollywood. The heartblood of cinematic craft in this film would be an effort to take a character who in a normal action-adventure movie is faceless, and which the movie takes pains to prevent us from seeing or loving as human when he is torn up by the hero’s cool weapon, and give him a human face so that the audience feels the pain not only of his wounded body but the grievous spiritual wound that creates its deepest tragedy. That is to say that the heartblood of cinematic craft would be to look lovingly at a man, unloving as he may be, and give him a face instead of letting him be a faceless henchman whose only purpose is to provide conflict so we can enjoy him being slaughtered. And more to the point, it would not violate his freedom or his character by giving him a healing he would despise, and announce that after his knee has been blasted away he comes to the point of forgiving the man who killed his friends and crippled him for life.

Which is to say that I saw the film as art, and he saw it as a container he could cram more message into. That is why I was disturbed when he wanted to tack a happy ending on. There is a much bigger problem here than ending a story the wrong way.

I don’t mean to say that art shouldn’t say anything, or that it is a sin to have a moral. This film idea is not only a story that has a moral somewhere; its entire force is driven by the desire to give a face, a human face, to faceless villains whose suffering and destruction is something we rejoice in other words. In other words, it has a big moral, it doesn’t mince words, and it makes absolutely no apologies for being driven by its moral.

Then what’s the difference? It amounts to love. In the version of the story I created, the people, including the henchmen, are people. What the filmmaker saw was a question of whether there’s a better way to use tools to drive home message. And he made the henchman be loving enough to forgive by failing to love him enough.

When I was talking with one professor at Wheaton about how I was extremely disappointed with a Franklin Peretti novel despite seeing how well the plot fit together, I said that I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. He rather bluntly interrupted me and simply said that Peretti didn’t love his characters. And he is right. In This Present Darkness, Franklin Peretti makes a carefully calculated use of tools at his disposal (such as characters) to provide maximum effect in driving home his point. He does that better than art does. But he does not love his characters into being; he does not breathe into them and let them move. It’s not a failure of technique; it’s a failure of something much deeper. In this sense, the difference between good and bad art, between A Wind in the Door and Left Behind, is that in A Wind in the Door there are characters who not only have been loved into being but have a spark of life that has been not only created into them but loved into them, and in Left Behind there are tools which are used to drive home “message” but are not in the same senseloved.

There is an obvious objection which I would like to pause to consider: “Well, I understand that elevated, smart people like you can appreciate high art, and that’s probably better. But can’t we be practical and look at popular art that will reach ordinary people?” My response to that is, “Are you sure? Are you really sure of what you’re assuming?”

Perhaps I am putting my point too strongly, but let me ask the last time you saw someone who wasn’t Christian and not religious listening to Amy Grant-style music, or watching the Left Behind movie? If it is relevant, is it reaching non-Christians? (And isn’t that what “relevant” stuff is supposed to do?) The impression I’ve gotten, the strong impression, is that the only people who find that art relevant to their lives are Evangelicals who are trying to be relevant. But isn’t the world being anti-Christian? My answer to that is that people who watch The Chronicles of Narnia and people who watch Star Wars movies are largely watching them for the same reason: they are good art. The heavy Christian force behind The Chronicles of Narnia, which Disney to its credit did not edit out, has not driven away enough people to stop the film from being a major success. The Chronicles of Narnia is relevant, and it is relevant not because people calculated how to cram in the most message, but because not only C.S. Lewis but the people making the film loved their creation. Now, there are other factors; both The Chronicles of Narnia and Star Wars have commercial tie-in’s. And there is more commercial muscle behind those two than the Left Behindmovie. But to only observe these things is to miss the point. The stories I hear about the girl who played Lucy walking onto the set and being so excited she couldn’t stop her hands from shaking, are not stories of an opportunistic actress who found a way to get the paycheck she wanted. They are stories of people who loved what they were working on. That is what makes art powerful, not budget.

There’s something I’d like to say about love and work. There are some jobs—maybe all—that you really can’t do unless you really love them. How? Speaking as a programmer, there’s a lot of stress and aggravation in this job. Even if you have no difficulties with your boss, or co-workers, the computer has a sort of perverse parody of intelligence that means that you do your best to do something clearly, and the computer does the strangest things.

It might crash; it might eat your work; it might crash and eat your work; it might show something weird that plays a perverted game of hide and seek and always dodge your efforts to find out what exactly is going wrong so you can fix it. Novices’ blood is boiling before they manage to figure out basic errors that won’t even let you run your program at all. So programmers will be fond of definitions of “Programming, n. A hobby similar to banging your head against a wall, but with fewer opportunities for reward.”

Let me ask: What is programming like if you do not love it? There are many people who love programming. They don’t get there unless they go through the stress and aggravation. There’s enough stress and aggravation that you can’t be a good programmer, and maybe you can’t be a programmer at all, unless you love it.

I’ve made remarks about programming; there are similar remarks to be made about carpentry, or being a mother (even if being a mother is a bigger kind of thing than programming or carpentry). This is something that is true of art—with its stress and aggravation—precisely because art is work, and work can have stress and aggravation that become unbearable if there is no love. Or, in many cases, you can work, but your work suffers. Love may need to get dirty and do a lot of grimy work—you can’t love something into being simply by feeling something, even if love can sometimes transfigure the grimy work—but there absolutely must be love behind the workgloves. It doesn’t take psychic powers to tell if something was made with love.

I would agree with Franky Schaeffer’s remark in Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts, when he pauses to address the question “How can I as a Christian support the arts?” the first thing he says is to avoid Christian art. I would temper that remark now, as some Christian art has gotten a lot better. But he encouraged people to patronize good art, and to the question, “How can I afford to buy original paintings?” he suggests that a painting costs much less than a TV. But Schaeffer should be set aside another work which influenced his father, and which suggests that if Christian art is problematic, that doesn’t mean that secular art is doing everything well.

Edward the Confessor Penny
Penny, Edward the Confessor (1042-1066)
An example of coinage that shows icon-like medieval figures, instead of photograph-style modern portraits. Other ancient and medieval examples abound.

When I was preparing for a job interview with an auction house that deals with coins and stamps, I looked through the 2003(?) Spink’s Catalogue of British Coins. (Mainly I studied the pictures of coins to see what I could learn.) When I did that, a disturbing story unfolded.

The Spink’s catalogue takes coins from Celtic and Roman times through medieval times right up through the present day. While there are exceptions in other parts of the world, the ancient and early medieval coins all had simple figures that were not portraits, in much the way that a drawing in a comic strip like Foxtrot differs from Mark Trail or some other comic strip where the author is trying to emulate a photograph. Then, rather suddenly, something changes, and people start cramming in as much detail as they could. The detail reaches a peak in the so-called “gold penny”, in which there is not a square millimeter of blank space, and then things settle down as people realize that it’s not a sin to have blank space as well as a detailed portrait. (On both contemporary British and U.S. coinage, the face of the coin has a bas-relief portrait of a person, and then there is a blank space, and a partial ring of text around the edge, with a couple more details such as the year of coinage. The portrait may be detailed, but the coinmakers are perfectly willing to leave blank space in without cramming in more detail than fits their design. In the other world coinage I’ve seen, there can be some differences in the portrait (it may be of an animal), but there is a similar use of portrait, text, and blank space.

This is what happened when people’s understanding of symbol disintegrated. The effort to cram in detail which became an effort to be photorealistic is precisely an effort to cram some reality into coins when they lost their reality as symbols. There are things about coins then that even numismatists (people who study coins) do not often understand today. In the Bible, the backdrop to the question in Luke 20 that Jesus answered, “Show me a coin. Whose likeness is it, and whose inscription? … Give what is Caesar’s to Caesar, and what is God’s to God,” is on the surface a question about taxes but is not a modern gripe about “Must I pay my hard-earned money to the Infernal Revenue Service?”, It is not the question some Anabaptists ask today about whether it is OK for Christians’ taxes to support things they believe are unconscionable, and lead one pastor to suggest that people earn less money so they will pay less taxes that will end up supporting violence. It’s not a question about anything most Christians would recognize in money today.

It so happens that in traditional fashion quarters in the U.S. today have a picture of George Washington, which is to say not only a picture but an authority figure. There is no real cultural reason today why this tradition has to be maintained. If the government mint started turning out coins with a geometric design, a blank surface, or some motto or trivia snippet, there would be no real backlash and people would buy and sell with the new quarters as well as the traditional ones. The fact that the quarter, like all commonly circulated coins before the dollar coin, has the image of not simply a-man-instead-of-a-woman but specifically the man who once held supreme political authority within the U.S., is a quaint tradition that has lost its meaning and is now little more than a habit. But it has been otherwise.

The Roman denarius was an idol in the eyes of many Jewish rabbis. It was stamped with the imprint of the Roman emperor, which is to say that it was stamped with the imprint of a pagan god and was therefore an idol. And good Jews shouldn’t have had a denarius with them when they asked Jesus that trapped question. For them to have a denarius with them was worse on some accounts than if Jesus asked them, “Show me a slab of bacon,” and they had one with them. The Jewish question of conscience is “Must one pay tax with an idol?” and the question had nothing to do with any economic harship involved in paying that tax (even though most Jews then were quite poor).

Jesus appealed to another principle. The coin had Caesar’s image and inscription: this was the one thing he asked them to tell him besides producing the coin. In the ancient world people took as axiomatic that the authority who produced coinage had the authority to tax that coinage, and Jesus used that as a lever: “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God’s the thing that are God’s.”

This last bit of leverage was used to make a much deeper point. The implication is that if a coin has Caesar’s image and we owe it to Caesar, what has God’s image—you and I—are God’s and are owed to God. This image means something deep. If it turns out that we owe a tax to Caesar, how much more do we owe our very selves to God?

Augustine uses the image of “God’s coins” to describe us. He develops it further. In the ancient world, when coins were often made of precious and soft metals instead of the much harder coins today, coins could be “defaced” by much use: they would be rubbed down so far that the image on the coin would be worn away. Then defaced coins, which had lost their image, could be restruck. Augustine not only claims that we are owed to God; he claims that the image in us can be defaced by sin, and then restruck with a new image by grace. This isn’t his whole theology for sin and grace, but it says something significant about what coins meant not just to him but to his audience.

During the Iconoclastic Controversy, not only in the East but before the overcrowded “gold penny”, one monk, who believed in showing reverence to icons, was brought before the emperor, who was trying to suppress reverence to icons. The emperor asked the monk, “Don’t you know that you can walk on an icon of Christ without showing disrespect to him?” and the monk asked if he could walk on “your face”, meaning “your face as present in this coin,” without showing the emperor disrespect. He threw down a coin, and started to walk on it. The emperor’s guards caught him in the act, and he was brutally assaulted.

These varying snapshots of coins before a certain period in the West are shapshots of coins that are icons. They aren’t holy icons, but they are understood as icons before people’s understanding of icons disintegrated.

When I explained this to one friend, he said that he had said almost exactly the same thing when observing the development or anti-development of Western art. The story I was told of Western art, at least until a couple of centuries ago, was a story of progress from cruder and more chaotic art. Medieval art was sloppy, and when perspective came along, it was improved and made clearer. But this has a very different light if you understood the older art’s reality as symbol. In A Glimpse of Eastern Orthodoxy, I wrote:

Good Orthodox icons don’t even pretend to be photorealistic, but this is not simply because Orthodox iconography has failed to learn from Western perspective. As it turns out, Orthodox icons use a reverse perspective that is designed to include the viewer in the picture. Someone who has become a part of the tradition is drawn into the picture, and in that sense an icon is like a door, even if it’s more common to call icons “windows of Heaven.” But it’s not helpful to simply say “Icons don’t use Renaissance perspective, but reverse perspective that includes the viewer,” because even if the reverse perspective is there, reverse perspective is simply not the point. There are some iconographers who are excellent artists, and artistry does matter, but the point of an icon is to have something more than artistry, as much as the point of visiting a friend is more than seeing the scenery along the way, even if the scenery is quite beautiful and adds to the pleasure of a visit. Cramming in photorealism is a way of making more involved excursions and dredging up more exotic or historic or whatever destinations that go well beyond a scenic route, after you have lost the ability to visit a friend. The Western claim is “Look at how much more extravagant and novel my trip are than driving along the same roads to see a friend!”—and the Orthodox response shows a different set of priorities: “Look how lonely you are now that you no longer visit friends!”

Photorealistic perspective is not new life but an extravagance once symbol has decayed. That may be one problem, or one thing that I think is a problem. But in the centuries after perspective, something else began to shift.

The Prophet Elias, Anonymous
The Prophet Elias, Anonymous
Before photorealistic perspective.

There is rich detail and artistry in this icon of the Prophet Elias. To those making their first contacts with Orthodox iconography, it may seem hard to appreciate—the perspective and proportions are surprising—but the things that make it something you need to learn are precisely the gateway to what an icon like this can do that mere photographs can never do.

The Dream of Joachim, Giotto
The Dream of Joachim, Giotto
Medieval art is beginning to become photorealistic.

In Giotto’s painting of the dream of Joachim, one can see something probably that looks like an old icon to someone used to photorealistic art and probably looks photorealistic to someone used to icons. Not all medieval art is like this, but this specific piece of medieval art is at once a contact point, a bridge, and a hinge.

Madonna of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci
Madonna of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci
Renaissance photorealism.

Leonardo da Vinci’s art is beginning to look very different from medieval art. In some ways Leonardo da Vinci’s art is almost more like a photograph than a camera would take—Leonardo da Vinci’s perspective is all the more powerful for the fact that he doesn’t wear his grids on the outside, and in this picture Leonardo da Vinci makes powerful use of what is called “atmospheric perspective”, giving the faroff place and above the Madonna of the Rocks’ shoulder the blue haze that one gets by looking through a lot of air. Hence Leonardo da Vinci’s perspective is not just a precise method of making things that are further away look smaller.

When Renaissance artists experimented with more photorealistic perspective, maybe they can be criticized, but they were experimenting to communicate better. Perspective was a tool to communicate better. Light and shadow were used to communicate better. It’s a closer call with impressionism, but there is a strong argument that their departure from tradition and even photorealism was to better communicate how the outsides of things looked in different lighting conditions and at different times of day. But then something dreadful happened: not only artists but the community of people studying art learned a lesson from history. They learned that the greatest art, from the Renaissance onwards, experimented with tradition and could decisively break from tradition. They did not learn that this was always to improve communicate with the rest of us. And so what art tried to do was break from tradition, whether or not this meant communicating better to “the rest of us”.

The Guitar Player, Pablo Picasso
The Guitar Player, Pablo Picasso
Art that has disintegrated from photorealism.

In at least some of Pablo Picasso’s art, the photorealistic has vanished. Not that all Pablo Picasso art looks this way: some looks like a regular or perhaps flattened image. But this, along with Picasso’s other cubist art, tries to transcend perspective, and the effect is such that one is told as a curiosity the story of a museumgoer recognizing someone from the (cubist) picture Picasso painted of him. Of all the pictures I’ve both studied and seem live, this kind of Pablo Picasso art is the one where I have the most respect for the responses of people considered not to be sophisticated enough to appreciate Pablo Picasso’s achievement.

Some brave souls go to modern art museums, and look at paintings that look nothing like anything they can connect with, and walk away humbled, thinking that they’re stupid, or not good enough to appreciate the “elevated” art that better people are able to connect with. There’s something to be said for learning to appreciate art, but with most of these people the problem is not that they’re not “elevated” enough. The problem is that the art is not trying to communicate with the world as a whole. Innovation is no longer to better communicate; innovation at times sneers at communication in a fashion people can recognize.

The Oaths of the Horatii, Jacques Louis David
The Oaths of the Horatii, Jacques Louis David
“High” art that communicates to ordinary people.

In an age before television, Jacques Louis David’s depiction of the oaths of the Horatii was extraordinarily powerful political communication, even political propaganda. Jacques Louis David combines two things that are separate today: elevated things from classical antiquity, and a message that is meant to communicate to ordinary people. A painting like one of Jacques Louis David’s was the political equivalent of a number of television news commentaries in terms of moving people to action.

The Franky Schaeffer title I gave earlier was Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts; the title I did not give is Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, which has disturbing lettering and a picture of a man screaming on its cover art. If there is a deep problem with the typical Christian approach to arts (and it is not a universal rule), there is a deep problem with the typical secular Western approach to arts (even if that isnot a universal rule either). A painting like “The Oaths of the Horatii” is no more intended to be a private remark among a few elite souls than Calvin and Hobbes; Calvin and Hobbes may attract the kind of people who like other good art, but this is never because, as Calvin tells Hobbes about his snowman art which he wants lowbrows to have to subsidize, “I’m trying to criticize the lowbrows who can’t appreciate this.”

The concept of an artist is also deeply problematic. When I was taking an art history class at Wheaton, the professor asked people a question about their idea of an artist, and my reaction was, “I don’t have any preconceptions.” Then he started talking, and I realized that I did have preconceptions about the matter.

If we look at the word “genius” across the centuries, it has changed. Originally your “genius” was your guardian angel, more or less; it wasn’t connected with great art. Then it became a muse that inspired art and literature from the outside. Then “genius” referred to artistic and literary giftedness, and as the last step in the process of internalization, “genius” came to refer to the author or artist himself.

The concepts of the artist and the genius are not the same, but they have crossed paths, and their interaction is significant. Partly from other sources, some artists take flak today because they lead morally straight lives. Why is this? Well, given the kind of superior creature an artist is supposed to be, it’s unworthy of an artist to act as if they were bound by the moral codes that the common herd can’t get rid of. The figure of the artist is put up on a pedestal that reaches higher than human stature; like other figures, the artist is expected to have an enlightened vision about how to reform society, and be a vanguard who is above certain rules.

That understanding of artists has to come down in the Christian community. Artists have a valuable contribution; when St. Paul is discussing the Spirit’s power in the Church, he writes (I Cor 12:7-30, RSV):

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?

I would suggest that the secular idea of an artisan is closer to an Orthodox understanding of an artist than the secular idea of artist itself. Even if an artisan is not thought of in terms of being a member of a body, the idea of an artisan is one that people can accept being one member of an organism in which all are needed.

An artisan can show loving craftsmanship, can show a personal touch, can have a creative spark, and should be seen as pursuing honorable work; however, the idea of an artisan carries less bad freight than the idea of an artist. They’re also not too far apart: in the Middle Ages, the sculptors who worked on cathedrals were closer to what we would consider artisans who produced sculptures than being seen as today’s artists. Art is or should be connected to iconography; it should also be connected to the artisan’s craft, and people are more likely to give an artisan a place as a contributing member who is part of a community than artists.

If we look at technical documentation, then there are a number of believable compliments you could give if you bumped into the author. It would be believable to say that the documentation was a helpful reference met your need; that it was clear, concise, and well-written; or that it let you find exactly what you needed and get back to work. But it would sound odd to say that the technical writer had very distinctive insights, and even odder to say that you liked the author’s personal self-expression about what the technology could do. Technical writing is not glorified self-expression, and if we venerate art that is glorified self-expression, then maybe we have something to learn from how we treat technical writing.

If this essay seems like a collection of distinctive (or less politely, idiosyncratic) personal insights I had, or my own personal self-expression in Orthodoxy, theology, and faith, then that is a red flag. It falls short of the mark of what art, or Orthodox writing, should be. (And it is intended as art: maybe it’s minor art, but it’s meant as art.) It’s not just that most or all of the insights owe a debt to people who have gone before me, and I may have collated but contributed nothing to the best insights, serving much more to paraphrase than think things up from scratch. Michel Quenot’s The Icon: A Window on the Kingdom, and, for much longer, Madeleine l’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art have both given me a grounding. But even aside from that, art has existed for long before me and will exist for long after me, and I am not the sole creator of an Orthodox or Christian approach to the arts any more than a technical writer has trailblazed a particular technique of creating such-and-such type of business report. Good art is freedom and does bear its human creator’s fingerprints. Even iconography, with its traditional canons, gives substantial areas of freedom to the iconographer and never specify each detail. Part of being an iconographer is using that freedom well. However, if this essay is simply self-expression, that is a defect, not a merit. As an artist and writer, I am trying to offer more than glorified self-expression.

This Sunday after liturgy, people listened to a lecture taped from Bp. KALLISTOS Ware. He talked about the great encounter at the burning bush, when God revealed himself to Moses by giving his name. At the beginning of the encounter, Moses was told, “Take off your shoes, for the place you are standing is holy ground.” Bp. KALLISTOS went on to talk about how in those days, as of the days of the Fathers, people’s shoes were something dead, something made from leather. The Fathers talked about this passage as meaning by implication that we should take off our dead familiarity to be able to encounter God freshly.

I was surprised, because I had reinvented that removal of familiarity, and I had no idea it was a teaching of the Orthodox Church. Perhaps my approach to trying to see past the deadness of familiarity—which you can see in Game Review: Meatspace—was not exactly the same as what Bp. KALLISTOS was saying to begin a discussion about receiving Holy Communion properly. Yet I found out that something I could think of as my own private invention was in fact a rediscovery. I had reinvented one of the treasures of Orthodoxy. Part of Orthodoxy is surrender, and that acknowledgment that anything and everything we hold, no matter how dear, must be offered to God’s Lordship for him to do with as we please. Orthodoxy is inescapably a slow road of pain and loss. But there is another truth, that things we think are a private heresy (I am thinking of G.K. Chesterton’s discussion) are in fact a reinvention, perhaps a crude reinvention, of an Orthodox treasure and perhaps an Orthodox treasure which meets its best footing, deepest meaning, and fullest expression when that jewel is set in its Orthodox bezel.

There are times when I’ve wanted to be an iconographer (in the usual sense). I don’t know if that grace will ever be granted me, but there was one point when I had access to an icon painting class. When I came to it and realized what was going on, I shied away. Perhaps I wanted to learn to write icons (Orthodox speak of writing icons rather than painting them), but there was something I wasn’t comfortable with.

Parishes have, or at least should have, a meal together after worship, even if people think of it as “coffee hour” instead of thinking of it as the communion of a common meal. The purpose is less to distribute coffee, which coffee drinkers have enough of in their homes, than to provide an opportunity (perhaps with a social lubricant) for people to meet and talk. That meeting and talking is beautiful. Furthermore, a parish may have various events when people paint, seasonally decorate, or maintain the premises, and in my experience there can be, and perhaps should be, an air of lighthearted social gathering about it all.

But this iconography class had lots of chatter, where people gathered and learned the skill of icon painting that began and ended with a prayer but in between had the atmosphere of a casual secular gathering that didn’t involve any particularly spiritual endeavor or skill. Now setting my personal opinions aside, the classical canons require that icons be written in prayer, concentration, and quiet. There are reasons for this, and I reacted as I did, not so much because I had heard people were breaking such-and-such ancient rule, but more because I was affronted by something that broke the rule’s spirit even more than its letter, and I sensed that there was something askew. The reason is that icons are written in silence is that you cannot make a healthy, full, and spiritual icon simply by the motions of your body. An icon is first and foremost created through the iconographer’s spirit to write what priests and canons have defined, and although the iconographer is the copyist or implementor and not original author, we believe that the icon is written by the soul of the iconographer—if you understand it as a particular (secular) painting technique, you don’t understand it. That class, like that iconographer, have produced some of the dreariest and most opaque icons, or “windows of Heaven”, that I have seen. I didn’t join that class because however much I wanted to be an iconographer, I didn’t want to become an iconographer like that, and in the Orthodox tradition you become an iconographer by becoming a specific iconographer’s disciple and becoming steeped in that iconographer’s spiritual characteristics.

Years ago, I stopped watching television, or at least started making a conscious effort to avoid it. I like and furthermore love music, but I don’t put something on in the background. And, even though I love the world wide web, I observe careful limits, and not just because (as many warn) it is easy to get into porn. The web can be used to provide “noise” to keep us from coming face to face with the silence. The web (substitute “television”/”title=”Jonathan’s Corner → Library”music”/”title=”Jonathan’s Corner → Library”newspapers”/”title=”Jonathan’s Corner → Library”movies”/for that matter, “Church Fathers” for how this temptation appears to you) can be used to anesthetize the boredom that comes when we face silence, and keep us from ever coming to the place on the other side of boredom. When I have made decisions about television, I wasn’t thinking, on conscious terms, about being more moral and spiritual by so doing. I believe that television is a pack of cigarettes for the heart and mind, and I have found that I can be creative in more interesting ways, and live better, when I am cautious about the amount of noise in my life, even if you don’t have to be the strictest “quiet person” in the world to reap benefits. Quiet is one spiritual discipline of the Orthodox Church (if perhaps a lesser spiritual discipline), and the spiritual atmosphere I pursued is a reinvention, perhaps lesser and incomplete, of something the Orthodox Church wants her iconographers to profitably live. There is a deep enough connection between icons and other art that it’s relevant to her artists.

When I write what I would never call (or wish to call) my best work, I have the freedom to be arbitrary. If I’m writing something of no value, I can impose my will however I want. I can decide what I want to include and what I want to exclude, what I am going to go into detail about what I don’t want to elaborate on, and what analogies I want to draw. It can be as much dictated by “Me! Me! Me!” as I want. When I am creating something I value, however, that version of freedom hardly applies. I am not free, if I am going to create fiction that will resonate and ring true, to steamroll over my characters’ wishes. If I do I diminish my creation. What I am doing is loving and serving my creations. I can’t say that I never act on selfish reasons, but if I am doing anything of a good job my focus is on loving my creation into being and taking care of what it needs, which is simultaneously a process of wrestling with it, and listening to it with the goal of getting myself out of the way so I can shape it as it needs to be shaped.

There is a relationship that places the artist as head and lord of his creation, but if we reach for some of the most readily available ideas of headship and lordship, that claim makes an awful lot of confusion. Until I began preparing to write this essay, it didn’t even occur to me to look at the human creator-creation connection in terms of headship or lordship. I saw a place where I let go of arbitrary authority and any insistence on my freedoms to love my creation, to listen to and then serve it, and care for all the little details involved in creating it (and, in my case, publishing it on the web). All of this describes the very heart of how Christians are to understand headship, and my attitude is hardly unique: Christian artists who do not think consciously about headship at all create out of the core of the headship relation. They give their works not just any kind of love, but the particular and specific love which a head has for a body. If art ends by bearing the artist’s fingerprints, this should not be because the artist has decided, “My art must tell of my glory,” but because loved art, art that has been served and developed and educed and drawn into manifest being, cannot but be the image, and bear the imprint, of its creator. That is how art responds to its head and lord.

To return to spiritual discipline: Spiritual discipline is the safeguard and the shadow of love. This applies first and foremost to the Orthodox Way as a whole, but also specifically to art. Quiet is a lesser discipline, and may not make the front page. Fasting from certain foods can have value, but it is only good if saying no to yourself in food prepares you to love other people even when it means saying no to yourself. There are harsh warnings about people who fast and look down on others who are less careful about fasting or don’t fast at all and judging them as “less spiritual”. Perhaps fasting can have great value, but it is better not to fast than to fast and look down.

Prayer is the flagship, the core, and the crowning jewel of spiritual discipline. The deepest love for our neighbor made in God’s image is to pray and act out of that prayer. Prayer may be enriched when it is connected with other spiritual disciplines, but the goal of spiritual discipline and the central discipline in creating art is prayer.

There is a passage in George MacDonald where a little girl stands before an old man and looks around an exquisite mansion in wonder. After a while the old man asks her, “Are you done saying your prayers?” The surprised child responds, “I wasn’t saying my prayers.” The old man said, “Yes you were. You just didn’t realize it.”

If I say that prayer drives art, I don’t just mean that I say little prayers as I create art (although that should be true). I mean that when I am doing my best work, part of why it is my best work is that the process itself is an act of prayer. However many arbitrary freedoms I would not dare to exercise and deface my own creation, I am at my freest and most alive when I am listening to God and a creation about how to love it into being. It is not the same contemplation as the Divine Liturgy, but it is connected, part of the same organism. The freedom I taste when I create, the freedom of service and the freedom of love, is freedom at so deep a level that a merely arbitrary freedom to manipulate or make dictatorial insistences on a creation pales in comparison to the freedom to listen and do a thousand services to art that is waiting for me to create it.

“He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (I Jn 4:20, RSV). If an artist does not love God and the neighbors whom he can see and who manifest the glory of the invisible God, he is in a terrible position to healthily love a creation which—at the moment, exists in God’s mind and partially in its human creator, but nowhere else. This is another way of saying that character matters. I have mentioned some off-the-beaten-track glimpses of spiritual discipline; this leaves out more obvious and important aspects of love like honesty and chastity. The character of an artist who can love his works into being should be an overflow of a Christian life of love. Not to say that you must be an artist to love! Goodness is many-sided. This is true of what Paul wrote (quoted above) about the eye, hand, and foot all belonging to the body. Paul also wrote the scintillating words (I Cor 15:35-49, RSV):

But some one will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is alike, but there is one kind for men, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.

These are words of resurrection, but the promise of the glorious and incorruptible resurrection body hinge on words where “star differs from star in glory”. An artist’s love is the glory of one star. It is no more the only star than the eye is the only part of the body. It is part of a scintillating spectrum—but not the whole spectrum itself!

I would like to also pause to respond to an objection which careful scholars would raise, and which some devout Orthodox would sense even if they might not put it in words. I have fairly uncritically used a typically Western conception of art. I have lumped together visual arts, literature, music, film, etc. and seem to assume that showing something in one case applied to every case. I would acknowledge that a more careful treatment would pay attention to their differences, and that some stick out more than others.

I am not sure that a better treatment would criticize this assumption. However, let’s look at one distinctive of Orthodoxy. One thinks of why Western Christians talk about how the superficial legend goes that the leaders of (what would become) Russia went religion-shopping, and they saw that the Orthodox worship looked impressive, and instead of deciding based on a good reason, they went with the worship they liked best. Eastern Christians tend to agree about the details of what people believe happened, but we do not believe the aesthetic judgments were something superficial that wasn’t a good reason. We believe that something of Heaven shone through, and if that affected the decision, people weren’t making a superficial decision but something connected with Truth and the Light of Heaven and of God. We believe that worship, and houses of worship, are to be beautiful and reflect not only the love but the Light and beauty of Heaven, and a beautiful house of worship is no more superfluous to light than good manners are superfluous to love. The “beauty connection” has not meant that we have to choose between good homilies, music, liturgy, and icons. A proper Orthodox listing of what constituted real, iconic art may differ from a Western listing, and there’s more than being sticks in the mud behind the fact that Orthodox Churches, by and large, do not project lyrics with PowerPoint. Part of what I have said about icons is crystallized in a goal of “transparency”, that the goal of a window of Heaven is to be transparent to Heaven’s light and love. Not just icons can be, or fail to be, transparent. Liturgical music can be transparent or fail to be transparent. Homilies can be transparent or fail to be transparent.

I’ve heard just enough bad homilies, that is opaque homilies that left me thinking about the homilist instead of God—to appreciate how iconically translucent most of the homilies I’ve heard are, and to realize that this is a privelege and not a right that will automatically be satisfied. The opaque Orthodox homilies don’t (usually) get details wrong; they get the details right but don’t go any further. But this is not the whole truth about homilies. A homily that is written like an icon—not necessarily written out but drawn into being first and foremost by the spirit, out of love, prayer, and spiritual discipline, can be not only transparent but luminous and let Heaven’s light shine through.

Some wag said, “A sermon is something I wouldn’t go across the street to hear, but something I’d go across the country to deliver.” I do not mean by saying this to compete with, or replace, the view of homilies as guidance which God has provided for our good, but a successful homily does more than inform. It edifies, and the best homilies are luminously transparent. They don’t leave the faithful thinking about the preacher—even about how good he is—but about the glory of God. When icons, liturgy, and homilies rise to transparency, they draw us beyond themselves to worship God.

My denser and more inaccessible musings might be worth reading, but they should never be read as a homily; the photographs in my slideshow of Cambridge might capture real beauty but should never be mounted on an icon stand for people to venerate; my best cooking experiments may be much more than edible but simply do not belong in the Eucharist—but my cooking can belong at coffee hour. The Divine Liturgy at its best builds up to Holy Communion and then flows into a common meal (in my culture, coffee hour) that may not be Holy Communion but is communion, and just as my more edible cooking may not be fit for the Eucharist but belongs in a common meal, I am delighted to tell people I have a literature and art website at CJS Hayward which has both short and long fiction, musings and essays, poetry, visual art, and (perhaps I mention) computer software that’s more artistic than practical. I have put a lot of love into my website, and it gives me great pleasure to share it. If its contents should not usurp the place of holy icons or the Divine Liturgy, I believe they do belong in the fellowship hall and sacred life beyond the sanctuary. Worshipping life is head and lord to the everyday life of the worshipping faithful, but that does not mean a denigration of the faithful living as lesser priests. The sacramental priesthood exists precisely as the crystallization and ornament of our priestly life in the world. As I write, I am returning from the Eucharist and the ordination of more than one clergy. Orthodox clergy insist that unless people say “Amen!” to the consecration of the bread and wine which become the holy body and the holy blood of Christ, and unless they say, “Axios!” (“He is worthy!”) to the ordination, then the consecration or the ordination doesn’t happen. Unlike in Catholicism, a priest cannot celebrate the Divine Liturgy by himself in principle, because the Divine Liturgy is in principle the work of God accomplished through the cooperation of priest and faithful, and to say that a priest does this himself is as odd as saying that the priest has a hug or a conversation by himself. The priest is head and even lord of the parish, but under a richer, Christian understanding of headship and lordship, which means that as the artist in his care he must listen to the faithful God has entrusted to his inadequate care, listening to God about who God and not the priest wants them to become, and both serve them and love them into richer being. (And, just as it is wrong for an artist to domineer his creation, it is even more toxic for a priest to domineer, ahem, work to improve the faithful in his parish. The sharpest warning I’ve heard a bishop give to newly ordained clergy is about a priest who decided he was the best thing to happen to the parish in his care, and immediately set about improving all the faithful according to his enlightened vision. It was a much more bluntly delivered warning than I’ve said about doing that to art.) The priest is ordained as the crystallization and crown of the faithful’s priestly call. The liturgy which priest (and faithful) is not to be cut off when the ceremony ends; it is to flow out and imprint its glory on the faithful’s life and work. Not only the liturgical but the iconic is to flow out and set the pace for life.

Art is to be the broader expression of the iconic.

Icon of the Trinity, Rublev
Icon of the Trinity, Rublev
One of the greatest icons in the Orthodox treasury

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The Hydra

A Surprise About “Joy”

Before beginning a critique that begins with C.S. Lewis, I should stop to pause and state that the choice of C.S. Lewis is deliberate and intended to be provocative. C.S. Lewis is considered by many Christians to be their chief spokesman in the modern age; though it would unfairly impute to him an unworthy calculating approach, he made deliberate choices to try to stay within what he called “mere Christianity,” meaning classic, little ‘o’ (o)rthodoxy, the Christianity of orthodox Christians, who might be described in Oden’s turn of phrase as “people who can say the Creed without crossing their fingers.” Most of people somewhere within the confines of Lewis’s mere Christianity, can look at most of what Lewis says and find that there are mostly things they can accept. Different groups of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestants who remain in continuity with historic roots and recognizable Christianity may believe things Lewis doesn’t say, but a snatch of Lewis from almost anywhere attracts most real Christians. And needless to say, this is not the only thing Lewis had going for him. He was a brilliant author yet able to communicate clearly and simply; he was an able expositor; and he had a formation in much of what is best in Western literature, a formation that enriched first of all his fiction and fantasy but also affected his nonfiction. And he was, himself, a person who could say the Creed without crossing his fingers, and a good deal more than that. If one is going to look for an able spokesman for any spiritually alive form of 20th century Christianity, C.S. Lewis is at least one of the front runners, and depending on the circles you move in, it might be said that choosing anyone else is a choice that requires justification.

And that is why I would like to begin my investigations with him.

C.S. Lewis, in one pivotal passage in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, wrote:

…The first is itself the memory of a memory. As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s “enormous bliss” of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to “enormous”) comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? not, certainly, for a biscuit tin filled with moss, nor even (though that came into it) for my own past. ‘Ιουλιανποθω [Oh, I desire too much]—and before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison.

The second glimpse came through Squirrel Nutkin; through it only, though I loved all the Beatrix Potter books. But the rest of them were merely entertaining; it administered the shock; it was a trouble. It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn. It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamored of a season, but that is something like what happened; and, as before, the experience was one of intense desire. And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire (that was impossible—how can one possess Autumn?) but to reawake it. And in this experience also there was the same surprise and the same sense of incalculable importance. It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, “in another dimension.”

The third glimpse came through poetry. I had become fond of Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf: fond of it in a casual, shallow way for its story and its vigorous rhythms. But then, and quite different from such pleasures, and like a voice from far more distant regions, there came a moment when I idly turned the pages of the book and found the unrhymed translation of Tegner’s Drapa and read

I heard a voice that cried,
Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead—

I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then, as in the other examples, found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.

The reader who finds these three episodes of no interest need read this book no further, for in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else. For those who are still disposed to proceed I will only underline the quality common to the three experiences; it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished from both Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures of the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.

I know that desire. I know it intimately, and it has been called one of the central defining characteristics. And, as is said in Ostrov, “I know [the demon] personally.” It is a form of covetousness, one that dwarfs the mere covetousness inspired by car ads, which portray luxury cars as mysterious, sensual, and intimate, and are in their own way “a particular kind of unhappiness or grief”, and which are in their own lesser way “a kind we want.” So far as I know, the Philokalia, which are (more than any other collection I’ve read, including the Bible) the science of interior struggle and spiritual warfare) says nothing of this secular enrapturement in its description of human beatitude. It does, perhaps, discuss something like this in the demon of noonday; today monks are perenially warned of the passion of escaping the here and now in which God has placed us, and the strict monastic is ordinarily to stay in one’s cell and fight the demon of noonday. One classic story tells of a monk who said he defeated the demon of noonday by visiting an elder, and another monk sharply corrected him: far from defeating the demon of noonday, his trip was giving in to the demon of noonday. This longing, called Sehnsucht by the Romantics (and remember that C.S. Lewis’s first work after returning to Christianity was The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Defense of Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism, is eloquently given voice in a work connecting conservative Christianity with Jungian psychology in Brent Curtis’s Less-Wild Lovers: Standing at the Crossroads of Desire, which was published in Mars Hill Review, republished along with First Things and other heavyweights in the conservative Christian Leadership University, and been gobbled up by complementarians (I am one) with works such as John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart. But there is an issue, not with complementarianism as such (though complementarians may jump at a literate voice saying something out of [lock]step with feminism), but with what is not present in Less-Wild Lovers. And I would challenge the reader to look at the compelling, haunting picture inLess-Wild Lovers, and ask what is not there for something that complains to be Christian: where, in the entire piece, is the human plight described in terms of the sin and evils condemned by Christian tradition? For the moment let’s set aside the question of whether sin is understood, as in Pilgrim’s Progress, through the paradigm example of a judicial crime, or whether it is understood as in Orthodoxy through the paradigm example of a disease. John Bunyan and an Orthodox Christian can alike say that judged by the paradigm of the Ten Commandments, we don’t stack up, and the Ten Commandments provide a yardstick of something seriously important in human living. Where in the entire article is the yardstick of human failing associated with such things as are in the Ten Commandments? And once a problem is admitted, where does God stand with regard to the center of things? Admittedly one is invited to a larger spiritual world, but when does the advocated “way of the heart” revolve around Christ? Admittedly the differences here between Protestant and Orthodox are significant, but even with these differences where does the thesis that we are marred by sin and saved by Christ ever shape the outlook in the article? Less-Wild Lovers compellingly concentrates something that diluted C.S. Lewis’s Christianity, something that helps make the The Chronicles of Narnia compelling, and a clue to something that is rotten in the state of Denmark. The longing C.S. Lewis appeals to is a form of covetousness, one I am too familiar with, and seriously not-cool.

The question of whether Lewis’s ardent longing is covetousness is not purely academic. If you ask, “If it is sin, and it makes his life happier, does it really matter?” then my answer will be, “It didn’t make Lewis’s life happy, or at least it didn’t make my life happy. The moment of haunting is sweet, whether or not one appreciates it at the time. But it darkens the overall picture. The times in my life when I have been most governed by ‘Joy,’ as Lewis calls it, have been the times when I was more unhappy, and times when I made others unhappy.” But I am getting ahead of myself. The question of whether something is sin is in fact closely related to whether it will make us more unhappy.

In A Pet Owner’s Rules, I said, God is like a pet owner who only has two rules:

  1. I am your owner. Receive freely of the food and drink I have given you.
  2. Don’t drink out of the toilet.

And, I argued, all sin is drinking out of the toilet. For example, getting drunk may feel enticingly nice the first time or two. But being drunk all the time, as any recovering alcoholic will tell you, is suffering you wouldn’t want on your worst enemy. And covetousness as a whole is drinking out of the toilet. Pornography, with its lustful shade of covetousness, begins by being very enticing, but lust is the disenchantment of the entire universe: first pornography disenchants everything that is not porn, and then it progressively disenchants itself. And it also fits to add that ordinary covetousness is pleasant at first. Watching a really enticing commercial may help you understand the words, “Having is not as pleasing as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.” But the cost of covetousness is a loss of contentment. One begins by not being satisfied by what one has, and ends by not being satisfied by what one can get. Buying things may get momentary satisfaction, but the ultimate delivery, if you can buy what you covet, is nicer things and with them less contentment than one had before. And in these lines, it matters a great deal whether the intense longing of “Joy” or Sehnsucht is in fact covetousness. If it makes the human person settled in happiness, this is news to the Orthodox spiritual person. Everything that is like it is deemed unhelpful in the ascetical literature; avarice is poison, and obeying the demon of noonday is poison. I don’t see that my own extensive experience with Joy has made me happy, and even its advocate in Lewis openly says that it can be seen as an intense joy or an intense wounded unhappiness. Admittedly we are to yearn for Christ God, perhaps in a sublimation of the impulse to yearn for created things, and some authors use ‘eros‘ or ‘yearning’ in relation to God: but neither Lewis nor Curtis finds this desire to be particularly a desire for God. The cost of yearning something that, unlike cars and chewing gum, I cannot have no matter how much money I have, is like the more vulgar yearning stimulated by commercials. It seems palatial from the inside, like a doorway to a larger space, and it costs me something, namely contentment with what God has given me now. Some times I have recognized that my actions when I have been in the service of such yearning have been toxic. I now remember not a single time in my life when I have been happy that such yearnings have been prominent. If, as Lewis says, these yearnings are such that in their service one would choose them over happiness, perhaps this is not a mark of how wonderfully good they are. Perhaps it is a mark of how foul they are.

The hydra, or one end of a fallen tree branch

I have written a fair amount of what is more or less nonmagical fantasy (short stories: The Spectacles, Stephanos, Within the Steel Orb; novellas: Within the Steel Orb, Firestorm 2034, The Sign of the Grail), enough so that one fellow author, in a conversation where someone said the first three books by an author establish his brand, suggested that my brand might itself be nonmagical fantasy. And it is something I would not like to be my brand now, but it is a clue to something significant.

I had stepped away from most fantasy with its portrayal of magic; in response to friends who said, “Why can’t we have fantasy with different physical laws?” I said (besides a bit about physics) that they were asking not for fantasy with different physical laws, but different moral laws, and I asked why they didn’t want fantasy in which other unlawful things besides magic were all kosher. The “different physical laws” seemed to always mean laws that would allow life as we know it (which is astronomically improbable: for physical constants alone, getting things right enough to allow us to live would require precision in excess of a marksman who could hit a proton from the opposite side of the universe), but in addition allow occult activity without what Christianity has regarded as occult sin. And why, I asked, if one could allow such things under the heading of different physical laws, why not envision universes in which sexual sins were innocent and harmless? And amidst all this, I sought to recreate fantasy, but without magic… which is to say that I sought to excise portrayal of magic from a fabric woven from the same root. I removed the picture but kept the frame on the wall. What fantasy offers is an alternative to the here and now, an alternative that crystallizes in the portrayal of magic. And I had removed magic from fantasy but retained the ambient orientation that powers magical fantasy.

What I am interested in here is a nexus that is something like a many-headed hydra: it appears in different places and different ways, but it is connected to the same reality (or, perhaps, unreality) underneath. People have said, “You pick up one end of a stick, you pick up the other,” and while this nexus is perhaps more like a branch that keeps forking, with many places one can pick it up, it is still aspects of the same thing.

Magic as an unnatural vice

My most recent haunting of “Joy” came with a desire for spring greenery and nature, by assumption in a neo-Pagan light. There are a couple of issues here; for one issue, our worship of nature is a worship of an idealized nature that cuts away plants that grow naturally because they are “weeds” (the definition of a “weed” is a plant I don’t want, and the kinds of plants that intrude on our gardens as weeds tend to be those best suited to the local ecology), and puts plants that are ill-suited to grow in the area, perhaps needing extensive fresh water in an environment where fresh water is scarce. But the other, deeper issue has to be that when we reach for natural religion our eyes search for neo-paganism, perhaps Druidry. It was always with a faintly guilty conscience that in looking for wallpaper for my computer, I grasped for wallpapers of Stonehenge. Now I do not object to nature wallpaper as such; I have a waterfall wallpaper on my computer now and a clean conscience with it. But the Stonehenge wallpaper has to do with imagining nature in a pagan light. Perhaps this is a pagan light that neo-pagans and Druids would recognize; perhaps they would call it an outsider’s conception. But in either case, as with the recent haunting of Joy, my reaching for nature was a grasping that had Romantic, pagan, or occult resonance.

But the Fathers regard occult sin as an unnatural vice. (There are other unnatural vices besides queer sexuality.) Our more ordinary adoration of nature seems to express itself in wanting to make it something it is not, culling plants that grow naturally as weeds and then trying hard to make “better” plants grow outside of their normal operating range. My haunting mentioned before was for spring greenery; I didn’t respect that where I live, at this time of year, it is right and proper for everything green (besides evergreens) to be buried beneath a thick mantle of snow. (At least I didn’t go to shovel the yard to make it like my idealization.)

But there is a deeper sense in which nature-worship, or nature-magic, is unnatural. It is a bit like getting into a test-taking strategy where the only live question is how to best go about cheating on a test, and discussion of taking test is not about any legitimate method of test-taking, but only of how to cheat.

If there is anything that is natural for us to have, it is the here and now, and the plain sense of the here and now. This “here and now” may be out of doors, or it may be inside a house, or it may in an even more artificial environment like Antarctica or an airplane cockpit. But regardless of which of these possibilities we are actually in, “Your cell will teach you everything you need to know,” and escape from the here and now is unnatural cheating on a test. It’s not learning the main lesson brought by the here and now. And if nature is looked to as providing the substance of an escape, then nature is being looked to for something unnatural. Stepping out of a house into something green may momentarily provide escape; but the nature of “out of doors” is no more permanently exotic than “indoors.” If the out of doors appears to us to have a shimmer of something magical, a shimmer of exotic escape from the here and now, then we are using nature to dodge the chief lesson that nature is intended to teach us. We are being unnatural in our use of nature herself.

I have mentioned Lewis’s “Joy” and my “nonmagical fantasy” as heads of this many-headed hydra. It is also the poison that animates unnatural occult use of nature; for other heads, look at “metaphysics” in the occult sense, which is not (like the “metaphysics” of philosophy proper) a discipline of delving into the roots of existence as we know it, but using mental gymnastics, acrobatics, contortions to dodge the plain sense of existence as we know it. Gnosticism is seductively appealing, but there is a catch. The Gnostic appeal hinges on a spiritual climate of despair in the here and now; its good news is a salvation from the here and now. To someone who is genuinely happy, who appreciates the here and now, gnosticism will fall on deaf ears; it is like offering completely free chemotherapy to someone who has no trace of cancer. Video games, iPhones, special effects in movies, and an almost limitless array of technical options obviate the need to pursue the spiritual discipline of Gnosticism or occult practice to escape the hear and now, also provide a way out of the dull here and now—and make the here and now duller in the process! The list is open-ended and seemingly limitless; one of the characteristics of pride to the degree of prelest (which has been called “spiritual illusion” and “spiritual lust”) is a progressive disengagement from the here and now, absorbed in funhouse mirrors.

Awakening

There were many years when I read The Chronicles of Narnia, and wished to be in another world, wished to be in Narnia and contradictorily wished to have in this world something from another world. The desire is a self-defeating: in my case, not coveting something like a watch or a car that I could perhaps buy if I could spare the money, nor for something like the Mona Lisa that physically exists even if it’s not for sale, but a desire for something that, almost by definition, “If I can have it, by that very fact it is not what I want.” It’s a bit like wanting to drink wine from an unopened bottle: as soon as the bottle is open and the wine available to drink, it ceases to be what I want.

More recently, after years of struggling against this kind of coveting, which was in turn after decades of struggling to satisfy this kind of coveting, I remember thinking of Narnia as something I didn’t want—I wanted things that were real. And I started to less want things I don’t have, and more want things I do have. One saint said that we should desire whatever conditions we have, instead of desiring other conditions.

And it may turn out in the end that happiness was, like a pair of glasses, on our nose the whole time. If we let go of paganism as a way to connect with nature, we may find that Orthodoxy has held this connection with nature all the time, in details like the flowers adorning icon stands and the saying that if you have two small coins you should use one to buy prosphora and the other to buy flowers for the icons, to the status of the Orthodox Church as the vanguard of the whole visible Creation returning to her Lord, to monastics who cultivate a connection with God and end up having a connection to the natural world as well, to everything discussed in Hymn to the Creator of Heaven and Earth. It turns out that the idea of paganism and Romanticism as the way to connect with nature was a decoy, but the good news is that the decoy is not needed. We have better.

Creation is both angle worm and angel host. It is not just rocks and trees, or even rocks, trees, and men, for the race of mankind has always been part of nature, but spiritual and visible: ministering spirits sent to serve the elect, seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, powers, authorities, principalities, archangel, and angel. And in all of this man is microcosm and mediator, the recapitulation and ornament of spiritual and visible creation alike. “In Christ there is no… male nor female,” sounds today like a drop of feminism woven into the Bible today and correcting its fabric, but the ancients knew something greater. Deification leads to the transcendence of the difference between male and female, between paradise and the inhabited world, between Heaven and earth, between the spiritual and visible creation, and finally between uncreated and created nature. All these differences are transcended in the Dance. And we dance the Great Dance with Nature, not when we submit to her lead, but when we properly lead her.

An ancient hymn says, “Adam, trying to be god, failed to be god; Christ became man, that he might make Adam god.” C.S. Lewis well enough said that though the journey to Heaven may cost us our right hand and our right eye, if we persevere through Heaven, we may find that what we have left behind is precisely nothing. If we let behind Romanticism and its by-definition-impossible quest for its harmony with nature, and all the occult hydra’s heads offering escape from the here and now, we may find that when we have really and truly repented, repentance being the most terrifying moment in Christian experience, once we have opened our hands and let all their necessary-seeming contents fall away as far as God wants, what we have left in our hands is all the good we did not choose, together with all the good we did choose. Letting go of that perennially seductive wish for a moment of deep harmony with nature, deepens our harmony with nature: for indeed, in terms of true harmony with nature that is continuous with virtue, being at peace with one’s surroundings, even in a skyscraper or even a space station, is more than a vacation where one is overwhelmed by hills and trees. And when we have repented of the escape that seems like our only real salvation given our circumstances, we are given real salvation in our circumstances: not wine from an unopened bottle, but appreciated wine from a bottle opened the usual way.

We have nothing to lose but our bondage to sin.

On Humor: Jokes, the Bible, and the Philokalia

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Two parallel translations

Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks. (Ephesians 5:4, KJV)

Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. (Ephesians 5:4, NIV)

Let me put a question, for which I have quoted this verse in two different translations, the King James Version and the New International Version. This verse refers to humor. Does it refer only to off-color humor, or humor as a whole?

I will be building up to an answer taken from the first-class humorist Mark Twain: “The secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in Heaven.

A look at the Greek turns up a Greek term eutrapelia which only occurs here; it is not mentioned in Kittel’s (unabridged) Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, but there is an entry for Strong’s Greek Lexicon:

Eutrapelia
wit, liveliness
eutrapelia
witticism, i.e. (in a vulgar sense) ribaldry
Derivation: from a compound of G2095 and a derivative of the base of G5157 (meaning well-turned, i.e. ready at repartee, jocose);
KJV Usage: jesting. G2095 G5157
Thayer:
1) pleasantry, humour, facetiousness
2) in a bad sense
2a) scurrility, ribaldry, low jesting

The ambiguity is there in the Greek, which can mean witty repartee, humor as a whole, or vulgar humor specifically. The immediate context suggests coarse speech, but I would be wary of simply concluding that the verse only deals with lewd humor alone. ThePhilokalia gives encyclopaedic lists of vices, and some of them list jokes; in context coarse jokes are condemned but the condemnation is not limited to lewd humor. One thing we might miss if we simply try to resolve an ambiguity and ask, “Does the verse refer to off-color humor alone, or humor as a whole?” is that the quintessential joke, the bread and butter of rec.humor.funny, the joke that has its own Wikipedia entry, is the obscene one: the joke that is good enough for polite company is just hanging along for the ride.

(In which case the ambiguity of “joking” vs. “coarse joking” could be resolved that the verse applies principally and primarily to coarse joking, but extends naturally to joking in general.)

But let us leave that for the time being. And let us give the benefit of the doubt to the interpretation of one word in one verse: even if I am raising a concern about humor as such, including good, clean humor, one word in one verse is not the best place to argue from. Besides the Philokalia can include jokes and laughter when an author tries to catalogue every vice, I am concerned about Mark Twain’s “The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow; there is no humor in Heaven.” I am concerned because my best sense is that he was right.

One time when my spiritual senses were being honed (during the discipline of a fast), I noticed something as a dialogue went on. I told the father of a kid I bantered with, “[Name] hurt my feelings.” The kid said, “How did I do that?” And I replied, “Fess up, [Name]. Then we’ll both know.” And that time I noticed something; something in my end of the dialogue felt like a spiritual scream. My eyes were being opened to something laced in my humor; no complaint about either of the guys I was talking with but there was something I sensed in my many favorite jokes that tasted sweet but left you not realizing you were sick afterwards. To give one example:

Someone decided to become an icefisher. So he got a bunch of equipment, went on the ice, and drilled down a couple of inches when a deep, booming voice said, “There are no fish there!”

The surprised icefisher took up his gear, moved over fifty feet, and began to drill down. He got down just half an inch when a deep, booming voice said, “There are no fish there!”

He moved over a hundred feet more, looked around, and the deep, booming voice said yet again, “Nor are there any fish there!”

The icefisher looked around and asked, “Who are you, God?”

The deep, booming voice said, “No! I’m the arena manager!”

The secret source of this joke’s humor is pain. It smuggles in more pain than you would imagine at first: someone is idiot enough to try to go ice fishing in a hockey arena. And the humor comes when that pain is pulled into the open. Nor, really, is the pain just for the people in the joke. The joke is a pleasure laced with pain. Perhaps there is a pleasure-pain syndrome where pleasure is laced with pain, but here we do not notice we have been sickened.

I once thought this joke would have been a good basis for a homily, to paint a picture where people ask of someone who dares to speak decisively in morals, “Who do you think you are? God?” and we reply that we’re just arena employees. But to a friend I was talking to, and to me, there was something that seemed wrong about using this joke in a homily even when it might serve as an excellent springboard.

Not all jokes are created equal: the crass vulgarity is more wrong than the clean joke and the sidesplitting joke you repeat is more wrong than the spontaneous banter, but there is a line of continuity between all of these, between the cleanest and the most foul.

So is there good news?

I would place two mental images in opposition to each other, in response to the question, “Is there any good news?” One is a place I worked where there was constant lewd joking; overall I got the impression that the obscene banter was a desparate bid to say something interesting, from people who could have had any number of interesting discussions. The chief effect I remember experiencing was not exactly being offended, but drained and drained. If an off-color jab is a desparate bid to say something interesting, it is not exciting, but dreary: if the most interesting thing you have to say are the same five dirty jokes, how great is that dullness!

The other image I would place opposite it is a priest standing, eyes closed, silent, intently concentrated in prayer. He is joyful, but the overall striking image is less joy than silence that speaks volumes. And this priest does not tell jokes, at least not often. But humor is not something missing from this priest. Maybe he does have a sense of humor and a few favorite jokes; I don’t know. But what he has is better than funny, and what he gives others is better than a joke, however funny. He has and shares joy, and the rapt silence which is among his greatest treasures is also something he shares to the best of his ability.

Mark Twain said, “There is no humor in Heaven.” If it seems natural to ask, “I like jokes. What consolation will I have if I give them up?” the answer is simply, “Heaven.”

When I was moving towards Orthodoxy, an Orthodox friend warned me that he had found Orthodoxy to be “a long road of pain and loss”. This he said, not to deter me from Orthodoxy, but so I could “know what you are getting into.” And his words have proven true, but there is something he didn’t tell me. The very real road of pain and loss has cost things I’d never imagine I’d be giving up, but the pain and loss have been the pain and loss of dislodging pieces of Hell and making room for a fuller grasp of Heaven. Orthodoxy has cost me my interest in fantasy, which is the same as saying that it cost me desires for things that were not real and I could not ever have, and given me in place desires for things that were real and a fuller desire for the One who is supremely Real. Orthodoxy has cost me my almost religious “faith” in science, which is ultimately to say that it has cost me answering some of the wrong questions. Orthodoxy has cost me trying to sate myself on pleasures, and cleared a distraction from things that offer genuine satisfaction. If Orthodoxy costs me an interest in humor, it may be so that I can live here on earth the Heaven that has never known humor’s sorrow. If Orthodoxy bids me say farewell to my search for earthly honors (I really have enough), it is so that I may search for Heavenly honors: the only honors that really matter. In all these things God is at work to give me the maximum in life.

The details and particular journey will be different for different people; this post and The Pleasure-Pain Syndrome pull from the Philokalia, but pull mint, dill, and cumin where the Philokalia offer justice, mercy, and faith. The Philokalia offer detailed discussions about how we are lured into different demonic traps, but the discussion of jokes is trivial by comparison with the discussion of unchastity. If it is even trivial. It does not occupy center stage, ever, but there is something worth unfolding, and it is particularly worth unfolding here and now.

We live in a time of pleasure seeking where pleasure delivery systems like Viagra sell. We also live in a time of lesser pleasures: pleasure delivery systems like televisions and smartphones sell. And we do not say with St. Paul, “When I became a man, I put childish pleasure-seeking behind me.” And in this context, it can stretch us to say, “Jokes are nice, but I’m trying to avoid them and move on to bigger things.” One could more sharply cite the Desert Fathers, “The Last Judgment awaits, and you laugh?”, but we can say, “Sorry; it’s powered by hidden pain; I’m looking for my happiness from other sources.” And we can make a small step to move on to bigger things.

Could you cut back on jokes, just a little?

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