Monday, September 18, 2017

Doubling Down on the Game of Thrones


A couple of weeks ago, Steven Christoforou did a "Pop Culture Coffee Hour" podcast that was originally entitled "Can Christians Watch the Game of Thrones?" He got a lot of negative feedback, because his answer to this question was essentially "Yes." He later posted an apology, not for the content of the show that contained the answer to the question, but for the title of the show, which he thinks is the main problem people had with that episode, because it was perhaps too "in your face." So he changed the name of the show to "Good and Evil in the Game of Thrones." The problem was not with the title. The question "Can Christians Watch the Game of Thrones?" is a perfectly good question. The problem was his answer, which he says he still stands by.

The answer to the question should have been "No!"


That could have made for a very brief podcast, but it would have been good if he had spent some time talking about the reasons why Christians should not watch such a show.

The Game of Thrones does not merely have nudity, it has pornographic sex scenes on a frequent basis, not to mention graphic gratuitous violence. I have never watched the show, and don't intend to, but when HBO is having to sue porn sites that are taking clips from the show, and using them as porn, I'm figuring it's porn. So we are not talking about Renaissance art here.

And Steven's podcast did not dispute the frequency or graphic nature of the sexual content of the Game of Thrones. For example, at about the 16:52 mark, his co-host Emma said:
"...to just focus on the fact that it has, um you know, like rampant sex scenes, or like extreme violence or something, doesn't do the show merit. ... you're not giving the show its worth, like you're just judging kind of, at, like, surface value or what you've heard about it ...but I don't think it's necessary, you know, like I don't think it adds anything to the show."
To which Steven replied:
"Well, yeah, I guess that is the question, right? ... because, like, you have to know your limits on some level, and kind of like you said, like if this is something that is going to be more of a stumbling block for you than anything else, yeah, totally withdraw or fast-forward when you need to fast-forward, or whatever. Um...but my sense is after watching for so long, and after kind of following this series that it's never really gratuitous... um..."
To which Emma replied: "I agree."

Then starting at the 19:39 mark, Steven said:
"But my sense is that it has always been necessary... it's always been part of the unfolding characters, and sort of their longer narrative arc, as we go from season to season, um... but that said, I mean, you know, buyer beware. If you're gonna watch this, be prepared for stuff that is difficult. Be prepared for stuff that's uncomfortable. Um... and if anything, you know like, because it's artistic, it's not gratuitous, it's part of this, sort of, like this artistic web that's being painted... like yeah, it helps to say something about the human condition. It helps to say something about sacrifice... to say something about sin... to say something about all of these things. So, um... it's there for a reason. And if you can take it, if you have the stomach for it, I do think it's worth it."
Then at the 20:30 mark, Steven said:
"You know... It's a great series, but if it's something that, you know, that causes you trouble or whatever, you know, be careful."
Then Emma interjected: "Yeah, absolutely, because it will pop up out of nowhere too."

To which Steven replied: "That's true. That's true."

So obviously, even if we were to accept the idea that you could navigate your way through a TV series with frequent porn scenes by simply fast-forwarding past those scenes, this shows that you obviously can't always see these scenes coming.

But aside from that, someone had to make these shows. Someone's daughter or sister, or son, or brother, had to film these scenes. And someday their children will be able to watch these scenes of their parents engaging in sex acts on the internet for themselves. How is this possibly OK?

Digging the Hole Deeper

To make matters worse, Fr. Andrew Damick and his usual Areopagus co-host Michael Landsman did a show together Steven and his usual co-host Christian Gonzalez (who was not on the original podcast in question) to deal with this controversy, along with an unrelated controversy involving a video that Fr. Andrew and Michael Landsman did together. Some people objected to that video, because Michael Landsman is a Protestant minister and they think that putting a Protestant minister on as a regular co-commentator was compromising the Faith in some way. Now, in the unlikely event that Fr. Andrew should ever ask my opinion about the format of his show, I would share my thoughts with him, but there is nothing inherently objectionable about talking with a Protestant minister about religious issues. It certainly could go in an objectionable direction, but on the other hand, if Michael Landsman eventually converts to Orthodoxy, Fr. Andrew will look like a genius -- and so that issue is all a matter of wisdom at this point, and reasonable people can disagree about it.

You can listen to this podcast here:
In the World, But Not of the World: Purity vs. Engagement (Pop Culture Coffee Hour Crossover)
Unfortunately, mixing these two issues together made for a meandering conversation back and forth between these two separate questions.

Now I should preface my comments by saying a few things. The only person in this podcast who said they watch the Game of Thrones is Steven Christoforou. Fr. Andrew and Christian Gonzalez both specifically said that they do not watch it. I don't think Michael Landsman said whether he watched it or not. Also, Fr. Andrew is a fine preacher, speaker, and writer, and most of his work is excellent. However, in this case, he went way off the mark. I suspect he did so, possibly without intending to go as far as he did, out of a desire to help Steven Christoforou dig himself out of the hole he was in, but instead he only mixed himself up with this mess, and dug the hole deeper.

Fr. Andrew acknowledged that the Game of Thrones contains graphic content, described it as having "people basically, like,  having sex on screen, [and] really, you know, very graphic violence" (17:20).

When it was pointed out that this conversation defended watching the Game of Thrones, Fr. Andrew Damick denied that this was true, however the entire half or more of the show that was dedicated to this topic was a defense of the original Pop Culture podcast, and of how someone could in good conscience watch a show despite such graphic content.

For example, at about the 26:00 mark, Michael Landsman said‏:
"And we should probably say that for some people, you probably shouldn't watch Game of Thrones."
To which Fr. Andrew replied: "Yeah right, yeah..."

This clearly was suggesting that some people can watch the Game of Thrones without it being a problem, and one could easily take it to mean that this would be true of most people.

In addition to this, at one point the graphic content of the Game of Thrones was compared with the Scriptures. Ignoring the fact that the Bible is not a video, and that descriptions of evil acts in Scripture are not written to titillate the reader, whereas there is no doubt that the porn scenes in the Game of Throne are there precisely for that reason -- a somewhat massive difference, making the comparison ridiculous at best.

Watching it was also compared with eating meat sacrificed to idols, which is not something that is inherently evil, according to St. Paul, and so would be a matter of conscience about which different Christians could reach their own conclusions.

Later on in the show, Fr. Andrew said:
"Just to reemphasize, we're not talking about becoming impure. The question is what actually renders you impure. You know...we're not saying... you know... OK watch Game of Thrones and go ahead and just imitate everybody on there..." (47:45).
The obvious implication here is that while you should, of course, not imitate what you see on that show -- watching it does not necessarily involve anything impure.

Men of Stone, Iron, or Flesh?

If, for the sake of argument, we assumed that Steven Christoforou is a one in a billion man who can watch porn scenes without it being a cause for temptation, the problem remains that other people had to sin to produce these films in the first place. And aside from that, all the rest of the male population is not likely to fare so well spiritually.

Here is what St. John Chrysostom had to say about the effects of watching lewd plays in the theater of his time:
"Have you not listened to Christ when he said: “Anyone who looks at a woman with desire has already committed adultery with her”?  “What if I do not look at her with desire?” you ask. How will you be able to convince me?  For if anyone cannot control what he watches, but is so enthusiastic about doing so, how will he be able to remain virtuous after he has finished watching?  Is your body made of stone? Or iron? You are clothed with flesh, human flesh, which is inflamed by desire as easily as grass [catches fire].
Why do I talk about the theatre? Often if we meet a woman in the marketplace, we are alarmed. But you sit in your upper seat, where there is such an invitation to outrageous behaviour, and see a woman, a prostitute, entering bareheaded and with a complete lack of shame, dressed in golden garments, flirting coquettishly and singing harlots’ songs with seductive tunes, and uttering disgraceful words. She behaves so shamelessly that if you watch her and give consideration, you will bow your head in shame. Do you dare to say you suffer no human reaction? Is your body made of stone? Or iron? I shall not refrain from saying the same things again. Surely you are not a better philosopher than those great and noble men, who were cast down merely by such a sight? Have you not heard what Solomon says: “If someone walks onto a fire of coals, will he not burn his feet? If someone lights a fire in his lap, will he not burn his clothing? It is just the same for the man who goes to a woman that doesn’t belong to him.” For even if you did not have intimate relations with the prostitute, in your lust you coupled with her, and you committed the sin in your mind. And it was not only at that time, but also when the theatre has closed, and the woman has gone away, her image remains in your soul, along with her words, her figure, her looks, her movement, her rhythm, and her distinctive and meretricious tunes; and having suffered countless wounds you go home. Is it not this that leads to the disruption of households? Is it not this that leads to the destruction of temperance, and the break up of marriages? Is it not this that leads to wars and battles, and odious behaviour lacking any reason? For when, saturated with that woman, you return home as her captive, your wife appears more disagreeable, your children more burdensome, and your servants troublesome, and your house superfluous. Your customary concerns seem to annoy you when they relate to managing your necessary business, and everyone who visits is an irritating nuisance.
The cause of this is that you do not return home alone, but keeping the prostitute with you. She does not go visibly and openly, which would have been easier. For your wife could have quickly driven her away. But she is ensconced in your mind and your consciousness, and she lights within you the Babylonian furnace, or rather something much worse. For it is not tow, naphtha and pitch, but her qualities mentioned above that provide fuel for the fire, and everything is upside down. It is just like people suffering from a fever, who have no reason to rebuke those who attend them, but because of the affliction of their illness are unpleasant to everyone, reject their food, insult their doctors, are bad tempered with their families and furious with those who care for them. Just so those who suffer from this dread disease are restless and vexed, and see that woman at every turn. What a terrible state of affairs!"(Homily against those who have abandoned the church and deserted it for hippodromes and theaters, emphasis added).
We have an epidemic of porn addiction in this country. The last thing we need to be hearing from leaders in the Orthodox Church is that watching a TV series with scenes that are undeniably pornographic is acceptable, in any way, shape, or form.

Rather than defending the original podcast, that podcast should be deleted, along with the subsequent podcast that defended the original one.

Update:

Fr. Andrew Damick has posted a further response on this on Facebook:
"A word of comment on our most recent episode ("In the World But Not of the World: Purity vs. Engagement"):
If what you came away from the episode with is the question of whether it's okay for Christians to watch "Game of Thrones," you missed the point.
Some folks who've missed the point actually accused us and our guests of promoting pornography! If that's what you think of us, I can't imagine a response to that, because nothing we say will sound legitimate.
That said, we all utterly reject porn. It should go without saying, but apparently it doesn't.
Also, if the question of whether "Game of Thrones" really is pornography is what you came away with, you also missed the point. Of *course* if it's all just porn there's nothing worthwhile there. But that is actually part of what's debatable and isn't a given. None of us is saying that we should go exploring porn. But that's still not what our episode was about. 
So what was it about? 
It was about the question of how we interpret our world. It was about whether and how to engage and also whether and how to remain pure. 
Fundamentally, it was about the assertion that purity and engagement are not opposites. You can engage with the culture and also remain pure. 
There's certainly a lot of room to discuss what remaining pure requires and what good engagement looks like. 
This is why we paired up discussing the controversy around the Pop Culture Coffee Hour episode with the controversy that surrounded our video ("3 Bad Ways and 3 Good Ways to Talk Religion"). 
What I hope will emerge from what is now a meta-meta-discussion is that we really should ask people what they mean when they say something, especially if what they say sounds crazy to us. Sadly, not one of the comments we've received accusing us of supporting porn actually asked if that was what we meant. It was just easier to accuse fellow Christians of the unthinkable. 
At one point during all this, I had someone say to me, "Words mean things," given in response to my saying that I didn't mean what he was saying. But words *don't* mean things. *People* mean things. And if you're more interested in how you can interpret someone's words to mean things he rejects than in finding out what he means, then you've got a real problem. 
What this illustrates is how shows like The Areopagus and PCCH really are needed. Real engagement requires asking questions and finding out who the other person is, not just leveling accusations or blanket condemnation. 
As always, thanks for listening. And let's keep engaging. It's a little rough and tumble out there sometimes, but it's still worth it."
We have contradictory statements here that do not make sense. Fr. Andrew acknowledged that the Game of Thrones contains pornography -- he described the show as "people basically, like,  having sex on screen" -- which is pornography. And here he says that he "utterly reject[s]" pornography. The dictionary would suggest that if you "utterly reject" something, this means you absolutely and without qualifications reject it. However Fr. Andrew then says that if the Game of Thrones was "all just porn," he would "of course" reject it. So the question is, how much porn does a movie or TV show have to have before that utter rejection actually results in one not being able to watch it? If you really "utterly reject porn," and if words actually do have meaning, you would have to utterly reject a series that has regular porn scenes, and do so without qualification.

So why not just say: "Orthodox Christians should not watch shows which contain porn, because we utterly reject porn, and the Game of Thrones has that which we utterly reject"? Never in the entire course of the podcast he did on this subject did anyone on that show say this, and he still has not said it. He should say that this show is not acceptable, and say so clearly.

A Further Update:

There is now another Podcast which at the beginning spends time defending the original podcast. In this episode of the Pop Culture Coffee Hour, Christian Gonzalez, and Christina spent a few minutes discussing this, beginning at about the 3:05 minute mark. Among other things, Steven Christoforou's being a fan of Game of Thrones, and so "engaging the culture" by watching and then finding Christ in its stories was called "brave" and compared with Christ's descent into Hades. You can hear it for yourself here:
Episode 39: Taking a Walk Through Parks and Rec
One could, with equal justice, defend frequenting brothels with such arguments. Yes, we can and should see God's image in prostitutes. Yes, we can and should proclaim the Gospel to them. Becoming their customers and having sex with them is not how you do that. Likewise, watching and supporting shows with pornographic content is not how you "engage the culture" and bring light to the darkness. That is instead participating in the darkness. Pornography is inherently sinful. It is inherently sinful to make it, and it is inherently sinful to watch it, and that is the clear and unambiguous teaching of the Church.

For More Information, see:

Christians and Entertainment

The Text of the Sermon "When Lot Pitched His Tent Toward Sodom (Genesis 13:1-13)

The Audio of the Sermon "When Lot Pitched His Tent Toward Sodom (Genesis 13:1-13)

The Threefold Cord

Friday, September 15, 2017

Christians and Entertainment


In a recent sermon, I addressed the problem of Christians in our time who seem to have rather large gaps in their understanding of Christian morality -- particularly with regard to the question of entertainment. You can listen to that sermon here:
When Lot Pitched His Tent Toward Sodom (Genesis 13:1-13)
Mother Cornelia (Rees) has also written an excellent article on the same subject, which shows what the Fathers had to say about Christians and unwholesome entertainment:
A Patristic Checkmate on the Game of Thrones
But in more practical terms, how should an Orthodox Christian in our times discern what entertainment is acceptable, and what should be avoided? Also, how do you deal with raising children in the context of the internet and ubiquitous access to it via various mobile devices?

Guiding Principles

The Christian life is a life of the pursuit of holiness, "without which no man shall see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14). Obviously, this is a struggle, particularly in the evil days in which we live. We have to keep a constant watch over our minds and hearts to keep them from falling back into sin. And since Christ has given us the principle that we cannot simply refrain from sinful actions, but must also refrain from sinful thoughts (Matthew 5:27-28), any entertainment that feeds the passions and presents us with temptations is not acceptable.

Since we say to God when we pray the Psalms “I have no unlawful thing before mine eyes” (Psalm 100[101]:3), we need to make sure that we actually live accordingly. Consequently, turning on a movie that you know contains graphic scenes that can only feed the passions is completely antithetical to this.

St. Paul admonishes us in Philippians 4:8:
"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."
And there are so many good and wholesome things for us to occupy our time with, that we could never exhaust them in a thousand lifetimes, and so why should waste any of our time feeding our minds with filth?

As St. John Chrysostom warns us:
"Do you not know that just as when we hand over money to our servants, and we demand accounts from them down to the last obol [a small silver coin, equaling 1/6 of an average man's daily wage], in the same way God will demand an account from us of the days of our life, as to how we have spent each day? What then shall we say? What shall be our defense, when we are requested to give our accounts of that day? For your sake the sun rose, and the moon brightened the night, and the intricate pattern of the stars shone forth. Winds blew for your sake, and rivers flowed. For your sake seeds sprouted and plants grew, and the course of nature preserved its own order. Day appeared and night followed. And all of this happened for your sake. But do you, when all creation serves you, satisfy the desire of the devil? You have rented such a home from God, I mean this world, but you have not paid the rent. And you were not satisfied with the first day, but on the second day, when you should have paused for a while from the evil that was enveloping you, you returned again this time to the theater. You ran from smoke into fire, descending into another pit that was even worse. Old men shamed their grey hair, and young men threw their youth away. Fathers brought their sons, from the beginning guiding inexperienced youth into the pits of depravity, so it would not have been a mistake to call those men child killers rather than fathers, as they surrendered their children’s souls to evil. What kind of evil, you ask. Because of it I am in agony, because although you are ill you do not know you are ill or call the doctor. You have become filled with adultery, and you ask “What kind of evil?” Have you not listened to Christ when he said: “Anyone who looks at a woman with desire has already committed adultery with her”?  “What if I do not look at her with desire?” you ask. How will you be able to convince me?  For if anyone cannot control what he watches, but is so enthusiastic about doing so, how will he be able to remain virtuous after he has finished watching?  Is your body made of stone? Or iron? You are clothed with flesh, human flesh, which is inflamed by desire as easily as grass (Homily against those who have abandoned the church and deserted it for hippodromes and theaters).
On the other hand, one could take this so far as to assume that we should not have any leisure time or wholesome entertainment, but this would be to go to an opposite extreme, which is also unhealthy. It is not possible for anyone to constantly be at 100% productivity. Human beings cannot sustain that. In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, we find this saying regarding St. Anthony the Great:
"A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, 'Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.' So he did. The old man then said, 'Shoot another,' and he did so. Then the old man said, 'Shoot yet again and the hunter replied 'If I bend my bow so much I will break it.' Then the old man said to him, 'It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.' When he heard these words “the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened" (Benedicta Ward, translator, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Alphabetical Collection (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975, 1984 revised edition), p. 3f.).
Also, I recall our own Archbishop Peter's talk about his remembrances of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, and he mentioned St. John asking him and the other altar boys at the cathedral in San Francisco what their plans were for the afternoon one day, and they were planning on going to see a movie (a clean movie, mind you). Not only did he not chastise them for it, he gave them some money for it. So clearly there is a balanced approach that is perfectly pious and Orthodox, and that is what we need to try to find in our current context.

So in sum, whatever we do in our leisure time it should ideally be of positive benefit to our minds and souls, but at a bare minimum it should at least not be harmful. When you have taken the time to watch a movie, for example, there should be something uplifting about it. Virtue and goodness should be affirmed in some way -- and even a good comedy will do that. Hopefully, you should have improved your mind in some way as well. Otherwise you are at best wasting your time; and at worse, actively harming yourself and your family.

Getting Down to Brass Tacks

I don't think having cable or satellite service in the home is a good idea. There are some good programs one can find on  them, but you are paying for a package, and so supporting a lot of filth. So I would say, cut the cord. That's, of course, my opinion, and I don't state it as binding on anyone else. However, if you are not going to cancel your cable or satellite service, you should block any of the channels that contain objectionable content, so that if you are channel surfing (which is generally not a good idea), you won't even see what these channels are showing. This is especially important if you have children in the home. You can also use the "V-Chip" to block specific objectionable content... however, this typically does not block commercials which can often be as bad or worse than the actual shows themselves.
See: How To Watch TV Without Compromising Your Values
It is a very bad habit to leave a TV running for background noise throughout the day. Many people have their TV running all the time. It stifles conversations, and it is a mindless thing that is sure to dramatically reduce the average IQ of your family. The TV should only be on when their is something worth watching. You should also try to limit how much time is spent watching things on TV in general.

When it comes to movies, you should try to find out if the content is wholesome before you even think about watching one. There are Christian movie reviewers that will give you a very good idea of whether or not a movie is going to be worth your time.

There are still some occasional movies that are both clean and well done, but another option is to explore the many decades of films that are out there that were made in the past. For example, I think one of the best movies ever made is the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice, with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. Almost every actor in the film is perfect. The cinematography is amazing. The screen play was by Aldous Huxley (not a Christian, but a great writer, and one who certainly came from a much more Christian culture than our own), and it is based on one the best novels ever written in English, and even though the movie is not a Christian film per se, it is rooted in a Christian ethos, and it affirms what is good and noble.

One bad approach is to watch movies you know have objectionable content, and just plan on fast forwarding past the bad parts. You are still watching and supporting bad movies. You are exposing yourself and your family to at least some objectionable content, because you don't know to fast forward a film until you begin to see what you need to fast forward beyond. This all has the effective of desensitizing you and your family to garbage that you should not tolerate.

If you get a bum steer on a movie, and despite your best efforts you find that it either has objectionable content, or it is simple a bad movie with no redeeming qualities, be prepared to turn it off. At the very least, if you are watching it with your family, you can point out what was wrong with it, and so gain some benefit by its negative example.

Read More, Watch Less

One of the advantages to removing broadcast and cable TV from your home is that it will make it a lot more likely that you will read more. That is a good thing even if you don't have children in your home. If you do have children, read good classic books to them, and then when you are done with a book, watch a good movie version of it. This will teach them to love books. They will generally see that the books are better than the movies, but this can help them better appreciate both the movie and the book.

Play Good Music

It doesn't have to all be classical music, but it should all be wholesome. We made a point of playing classical music for our children from the time they were in the crib, and in both cases our children turned out to be very musically inclined. It could be coincidental, but I don't think so. Baroque music in particular is very good background music for reading and study.

Electronic Devices and the Internet

Obviously as your children get older, you are going to have less of an ability to control what they see and do, but you should use that power wisely while you have it. There is no reason why young children need to have smart phones, or have unsupervised access to the Internet. If you home-school your children, this is obviously a lot easier, but if you have your children in a public or private school, buck the trend, and don't give them smart phones, lap tops, or tablets. If they have any cell phone at all, get them a basic phone that only has the ability to make calls and send text messages.

We are told that children need to have all of these things from an early age so they can be tech savvy, but none of these devices are difficult to learn how to use, and if they don't have unlimited access until they are more mature, it will not hurt them. And instead, they might learn how to actually do math, write with a pen, and read books -- all of which are dying arts for most young people these days.

I would also use an internet filter, especially if you have boys. Again, the older they get, the less these things will be effective, and so hopefully they will learn self control as your controls as a parent are gradually reduced.

You are not going to be able to shield your children completely from all the filth that is so prevalent in our culture, but you should make the effort, and show them by your example how they should approach these things when they are the ones that will have to make these decisions for themselves and their own children.

Update:

Canon 100 of the Sixth Ecumenical Council states:
“Let thine eyes look aright, and keep thy heart with all diligence” (Prov. 4:25 and 23), wisdom bids us. For the sensation of the body can easily foist their influence upon the soul. We therefore command that henceforth in no way whatever shall any pictures be drawn, painted, or otherwise wrought, whether in frames or otherwise hung up, that appeal to the eye fascinatingly, and corrupt the mind, and excite inflammatory urgings to the enjoyment of shameful pleasures. If anyone should attempt to do this, let him be excommunicated."
The Rudder of St. Nicodemus then has the following comment on this canon:
"Inasmuch as some men were wont to paint or draw on walls and boards lascivious pictures, such as women stark naked or bathing or being kissed by men, and other such shameful scenes, which deceive the eyes of beholders and excite the mind and heart to carnal desires, therefore and on this account the present Canon commands that no such pictures shall by any means whatsoever be painted or drawn or sketched. If anyone should make any such pictures, let him be excommunicated, since all the five senses of the body, and especially the first and royalest one, the eyesight, is easily led to impress the pictures of those things which it sees into the soul. That is why Solomon recommends that our eyes look aright at things that are fine and good and beautiful, and that everyone of us keep his mind and heart away from the shameful objects of the senses" (D. Cummings, trans., The Rudder of the Orthodox Catholic Church: The Compilation of the Holy Canons Saints Nicodemus and Agapius (West Brookfield, MA: The Orthodox Christian Educational Society, 1983), p. 406f).
For More Information:

The Text of the Sermon "When Lot Pitched His Tent Toward Sodom (Genesis 13:1-13)

Stump the Priest: Time Management

Friday, September 01, 2017

Stump the Priest: Our Holy and God-Bearing Fathers


Question: "In our services we often speak of "our holy and God-bearing fathers, and all the saints..." I understand that the reference is made to the Church's founding fathers, but who is meant specifically? All the Apostles? Just Peter and Paul?"

This is an interesting question. Like many seemingly simple questions, it is not as simple as it might seem at first glance. On the one hand, you might think it could refer to all of the saints that have gone on before us, but then after they are mentioned, we then hear "and all the saints," which would be redundant if they referred to the same exact group of people. So just from the meaning of the words alone, I think we can say that we are talking about some group of saints, but not all of them.

I would say that it certainly refers to the Apostles. No doubt this also includes the Church Fathers... who are actually considered saints by the Church. Often the phrase "Church Father" is applied to any important Christian writer during the patristic period; but those, like Tertullian and Origen, that are not considered saints because their teachings contained significant errors rejected by the Church, can only be called "Church Fathers" in a very loose sense of the term, and are not what we are talking about here. It would include the Fathers of the various Ecumenical and Local Councils that the Church has received as having ecumenical authority... but again, only including the participants of those councils that are saints. We may not know all the names of these saints, but we do know the names of some that are definitely not saints, and so they would not be included.

But are we excluding saints of the Old Testament, and does this exclude women? Not at all. In many languages a masculine word is often used in a way that is inclusive of males and females, and that is true in this case. For example, we have two Sundays of the Fathers that are specifically focused on the Saints of the Old Testament -- the two Sundays prior to Christmas. On the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers (which is two Sundays before Christmas), we not only sing about the many prophets and saints of the Old Testament who were men, but in the canon of the Ninth Ode, we hear about some of our Foremothers:
"By Thy might, O Lord, Thou didst of old make Thy daughters powers: Hannah and Judith, Deborah and Huldah, Jael and Esther, Sarah and Miriam the sister of Moses, Rachel and Rebecca, and Ruth the exceeding wise." 
And on the Sunday before Christmas (which is also called "the Sunday of the Holy Fathers" and sometimes "the Sunday of the Genealogy," because we read the genealogy of Christ from Matthew 1 at the Liturgy), we also sing at the Praises:
"The Virgin Theotokos, she who through the ages hath been preached on earth by the prophets in their utterances, she whom the wise patriarchs and the assemblies of the righteous proclaim, with whom the comeliness of women joineth chorus: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Hannah, together with the glorious Miriam, the sister of Moses. With them all the ends of the world rejoice and all creation rendereth honor, for the Creator and God of all cometh to be born in the flesh and to grant us great mercy."
In addition to the Prophets, Apostles, and the Fathers who have instructed the Church in the Faith, we also include those saints who were ascetical teachers. And here again, we find that this does not exclude our spiritual mothers. For example, in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, in addition to such saints as St. Anthony the Great, and St. Poemen, we also find the sayings of St. Theodora of Alexandria, St. Sarah of the Desert, and St. Syncletica of Alexandria

So I think we can say that when we speak of "our holy and God-bearing fathers," we are speaking of those of both the Old and New Testaments, and both fathers and mothers, who helped lay the foundations and build up our faith and our Church, both in terms of their examples and their teachings. And this does not only include those of the distant past, but also more recent examples such as St. Cosmas of Aetolia, St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, the Optina Elders, St. John of Kronstadt, and St. John of Shanghai, and many others. And we will continue to add to their number until Christ returns.