Truth and the Times: The Culture Conundrum (Part II)
An Interview with His Eminence Metropolitan Savas of Pittsburgh
PRAXIS: How would you address the concerns of those who question the legitimacy of any attempt to communicated the eternal truths of the Gospel of Christ in the ephemeral terms of popular culture, those who characterize the effort as a trivialization, a casting of pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6), even a kind of blasphemy?
METROPOLITAN SAVAS: There have always been, from the beginning of the Church’s history, those who would draw the sharpest of lines between the Church and the fallen world. Tertullian, a second-century theologian from North Africa, was such a person. “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” he famously asked. What can human reason add to revelation? Tertullian’s answer was an emphatic “nothing.” The American Protestant theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, in his classic Christ and Culture, identified this as the most basic of five characteristic- or in his language, “paradigmatic”postures Christians have adapted toward the world over the centuries. He called such a stance “Christ versus Culture.” Other paradigms include “The Christ of Culture,” “Christ above Culture,” “Christ and Culture in Paradox” and “Christ the Transformer of Culture.”
It would take too long to discuss the distinctive features, strengths and weaknesses of each attitude. I mention it only to call attention to the fact that, even with the Orthodox Church, different fathers have demonstrated different attitudes at different times. For instance, the Church of the early fourth century realized that it had to create new material to counter the Arian propaganda being taught by means of catchy tunes, like the famous, “There was a time when [the Son] was nor.” There was strong opposition from some quarters to the introduction of new hymnody. They believed the Psalter was sufficient, and that the psalms should be chanted in such a way as to not titillate or distract the listener or create a temptation to pride for the persons performing. Their extreme conservatism didn’t convince at the time. Ironically, within a short time, the centers of opposition soon became the greatest producers of new hymnic texts and elaborate melodies!
Consider the example and teaching of the great Apostle to the Gentiles, St Paul. In his missionary outreach to the Athenians, he didn’t refer to Christ as the fulfillment of the promises to Israel. That would have meant nothing to his pagan listeners. Instead, he looked for ways to connect with them on the basis of their own culture, drawing from their own sculptural and poetic arts (Acts 17: 16-34). Elsewhere in his letters, he made use of the language of athletic competition- boxing as well as foot racing-to communicate truths about the demands of the life in Christ (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, 2 Timothy 2:5, Hebrews 12:1-2), even though, again ironically, later generations of Christian leaders would try to dissuade the faithful from participation in such competitions, as they tended to feed the passions of pride and anger and vainglory. Perhaps the most powerful passage in support of the effort to engage people in terms familiar to them comes again from St Paul:
To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Corinthians 9:20-22)
Consider as well the teaching of the great second-century apologist, St. Justin Martyr, the Philosopher, a convert from the Greco-Roman world who famously spoke of the “seeds of truth” scattered by God’s providence and foreknowledge throughout all human cultures, and claimed for the Christian whatever truth had ever been said by anyone at any time: “Whatever is good and true and beautiful belongs to the Christian.”
I think no one made a stronger case for cultural engagement than the Cappadocian Fathers, and in particular St. Basil the Great. Many of us have heard that he taught, in his famous ”Address to young men on how they might derive benefit from Greek literature” (c. 360 AD), that the Christian must be like the bee, taking selectively from pagan writings, as the bee takes selectively from the flowers, carrying away what is useful and leaving behind what is not. In fact, St. Basil was saying something even more daring: he was encouraging the critical study of pagan Greek texts, on the grounds that, properly understood, they affirmed rather than contradicted Orthodox Christian thought. And the pagan text par excellence St. Basil had in mind was not a Platonic dialogue but Homer’s Iliad!
PRAXIS, Spring 2011, Vol. 10 “Truth and the Times: The Culture Conundrum. An Interview with His Eminence Metropolitan Savas of Pittsburgh.”