Turning Emotional Sufferings into Spiritual Profit

In the early fifth century, the great preacher of the early church, St. John Chrysostom (c. 349–407), made an enemy of the Empress Eudoxia. He had provoked the wrath of the empress by speaking out against an image she had erected of herself directly across from his church, the Hagia Sophia Cathedral. When games were played in front of the idolatrous image, this distracted worshipers from the prayer services. Hoping to silence St. John, Empress Eudoxia sent soldiers to carry him into exile in 404. There followed a period of persecution against those who supported the exiled preacher. Soldiers forcibly broke up church services of those who were loyal to St. John, abusing the worshipers and even stripping ear rings off the women, pulling off parts of their ears in the process. Some of St. John’s followers were even tortured and killed.

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From Eden to New Creation: Rediscovering God’s Purpose for Planet Earth

This article is part of my ongoing series on Gnosticism. For a complete list of these articles, see ‘Full Links to Gnosticism Series.’
God and the Problem of Creation

Camille is a sophomore in college, majoring in theater with an emphasis in dance. Earlier in the year she was introduced to Jesus through friends with Campus Crusade, leading to what she describes as her “salvation experience.” Now Camille is only interested in serving Jesus. She wonders if perhaps she should switch her major in Bible, for she is unsure how “secular” pursuits like theatre and ballet fit with her newfound faith.

Rodrigo recently became uncomfortable when a group at his church got involved in local politics to try to address issues of homelessness and poverty. Although Rodrigo does not have a problem helping homeless people, he has a strong intuition that the church should not become involved in politics. Didn’t Jesus himself say that His kingdom is not of this world?

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The Robin & Boom Show #15 – Everything Plato, with Dr. Phillip Cary

Dr. Phillip Cary sheds light on Plato’s philosophy in this latest edition of The Robin & Boom Show. In this podcast you will learn why the ideas of a thinker from the 5th century BC are more relevant today than ever before. Plato offers a valuable antidote to a culture in which goodness, truth, and beauty are so often perceived to be located in the purely immanent. Questions addressed in this podcast include:

  • Was Plato a proto-Gnostic?
  • Did Plato hate the material body?
  • What is the relation between body and soul within Plato’s thought?
  • How did Plato’s spiritual psychology become more complex as he matured?
  • Does Plato’s spiritual psychology shed light on issues we face in the modern world?
  • How do human bodies reflect the forms of ultimate things?
  • How did Socrates influence Plato at the beginning of his career, and Aristotle towards the end of his career?
  • Does erotic love have spiritual value?
  • What is the role of desire in truth-seeking?
  • What role did neoplatonism play in in Eastern Orthodox theology?
  • How did St. Augustine appropriate Plato’s philosophy for the West?
  • Can a contemporary appropriation of neoplatonism shed light on modern issues like malls and movies?

View all Episodes of The Robin & Boom Show

New Creation and its Discontents

In December 1945, as Allied forces were making their way through Germany arresting war criminals, two Egyptian brothers were going about their farm work near the upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi.

The day started out like any other day for twenty-six year-old, Muhammad ‘Ali al-Samman, and his fifteen-year-old brother, Abu al-Majd. On that particular day the brothers were riding on camels in search of a special soft soil that served as a fertilizer for crops.

Coming to a large boulder, they decided this looked like a good place to dig for the nitrogenous fertilizer. No sooner had the brothers begun digging when they hit the top of a red earthenware jar. This jar, which turned out to be almost a meter high, was sealed on the top with a bowl.

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Sanitizing Death

In the podcast below, Fr. John Behr observed that the greatest change in the modern world (greater even than electricity and the internet) is that we no longer have to deal with death in an immediate way. Until the last fifty years, ordinary people had constantly to deal with the process of dying and with dead bodies. But in the modern world we no longer see death or have to deal with dead bodies. We have sanitized death. A practical result of this shift is that we have no practical horizon for understanding finiteness, vulnerability and transcendence, or even for fully grasping the mystery of the incarnation when God embraced death in order to trample it down.

Great Lent and Cultural Anthropology

During this season of Lent, I have thought more than once about the spiritual value of struggle. The Church would not have given us an entire season devoted to struggling if it were not appropriate to view struggle in a positive light.

Not everyone agrees that struggle is good. In my Touchstone article The Cross of Least Resistance, I quoted a number of influential evangelical leaders who taught that the presence of struggle in a person’s spiritual life is a sure sign that something is wrong. This present article will not attempt to expose the hermeneutical and exegetical errors in the opinions of these false teachers (for that, see here and here and here). Instead, I want to look at the question of struggle from the perspective of cultural anthropology. But first, why cultural anthropology?

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Nine Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Parenting Teenagers

This post was originally published a number of years ago, and is being re-issued at the top of my blog for the sake of new readers.

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Having been involved in raising three teenagers, I have sometimes been approached by other parents for advice with their teens. Perhaps it is providential that this doesn’t happen very often! When people do seek my advice, although the various situations differ widely, the problems usually revolve around the same sorts of general issues and so I usually end up saying the same things again and again. For what it’s worth, I’m going to share below what I normally say. This advice is what I wish someone had shared with me before I ever had teenagers. With regard to the personal anecdotes I will share, some of the circumstantial details have been altered to preserve the anonymity of the subjects. But first a disclaimer is necessary for those who may happen to know me: I am still learning to apply these principles myself. It is one of the ironies of life that by the time we finally learn all the lessons we need to know about being good parents, our last child is already grown.

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Dr. Nathan Jacobs on East-West Theological Differences

There are important theological differences and emphases between the East and the West, and most of the time these differences are articulated it is done in a haphazard polemical and historically irresponsible way. But it is possible to articulate these differences accurately and with proper nuance. I was reminded of that last year when I listened to a podcast where Hank Hanegraaff interviewed Dr. Nathan Jacobs on the sophistication of the early church fathers. Jacobs is extremely well-read in the fathers of both the West and the East and is able to explain their different orientations in way that is more helpful than what I have encountered anywhere else. If you are Eastern Orthodox and wanting to give your Protestant friends a good overview of Orthodox theology, this podcast would be great to share.

You can listed to the podcast below. (And, by the way, this is not an invitation for those who hate Hank Hanegraaff to send me angry emails.)

Listen to “Sophistication of Early Church Fathers with Dr. Nathan Jacobs” on Spreaker.

Pain, Suffering and Resilience, Published by St. Sebastian Orthodox Press

St. Sebastian Orthodox Press has just released a new book Pain, Suffering and Resilience: Orthodox Christian Perspectives.

This collection of peer-reviewed essays explores the mystery of human suffering along with the spiritual and psychological resources that enable us to achieve resilience in the midst of pain.

The publisher explains how the work

“includes eminent scholars, clergy, physicians, and psychotherapists seeking to serve people in their respective fields, through their respective disciplines informed and guided by the depth and riches of the Orthodox Christian Faith. This is the unifying thread for each of the contributors who bring this ancient Christian perspective into dialogue with the contributions of modern psychology and medical science as they seek to address the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions of pain and human suffering in a variety of contexts.”

I was privileged to be asked to contribute a chapter to this volume on the topic of practicing gratitude during times of suffering. My essay  develops material I began exploring in my chapter on Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Saints and Scoundrels. By drawing on classic spiritual texts (i.e., The Way of the Pilgrim, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Dorotheus of Gaza’s Saying and Discourses, etc) and integrating them with recent developments (i.e., advances in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, the twentieth-century prison literature, etc.) I make a case that suffering and gratitude are not related like two sides of a zero-sum transaction where an increase in the former entails a decrease in the latter. Rather, by receiving our sufferings rightly, we can use them as opportunities to actually grow in the cognitive, behavioral and emotional dimensions of thankfulness. From the essay:

“…true gratitude is not merely compatible with an acknowledgement of pain; it presupposes it. To be truly grateful is to acknowledge that life is difficult while framing that difficulty within a context of thanksgiving…. Gratitude releases us to lean into the pain, to stand face to face with the ambiguity and complexity of life and not to despair. In contrast to stoicism, cynicism and sentimentalism, gratitude-based reframing does not involve detachment from suffering; rather, it provides the inner resources for genuine engagement…. In so far as gratitude enables us to lean into pain, to be realistic rather than escapist, it provides the resources to engage with others who are suffering instead of insulating ourselves from their pain. In our comfort-oriented culture, many people’s default response is to avoid those whose lives are lonely, messy or filled with pain. Instead of going through people’s pain with them, we often numb ourselves to the suffering around us in order to protect ourselves. However, when the pursuit of comfort causes us to numb ourselves to the impact of suffering, what we are doing is numbing away the capacity to empathize, to feel love, joy and gratitude. This is because it is impossible to selectively numb emotion. When we harden ourselves as a defense against fear, grief, disappointment, shame, rejection or vulnerability, we are inadvertently reducing our capacity to feel the emotions that are important for our wellbeing, including gratitude.

Gratitude enables us to look pain straight in the eye and not to despair. Gratitude enables us to derive genuine enjoyment from small blessings even when evil, suffering and pain are crowding in upon us. This is important, not only so we can have the resources for weathering life’s storms, but so we have the inner resources to engage with others who are going through hardships. Instead of pushing people away because we cannot deal with their pain, and instead of numbing ourselves in order to be insulated from other people’s grief, a grateful person has the inner resources to empathize with those who are in pain and like the Apostle said, ‘rejoicing with them that rejoice, and weeping with them that weep.’ (Romans 12:15)”

What I don’t share in my chapter, but which I would like to share here, is that the research behind this essay was prompted by a very painful set of circumstances in my personal life. The Lord brought me to a point where I was ready to dig deep in ancient spiritual teachings on contentment and pain. What I found is the spiritual paradox encapsulated by Elder Alexander of Gethsemane who observed that “The amount of suffering that the soul can accommodate is also how much it can accommodate the grace of God.

The best chapters in Pain, Suffering and Resilience: Orthodox Christian Perspectives, are actually the ones written by others, including a contribution by His Grace, Bishop Alexander (Golitzin), who serves as Bisohp of the Diocese of the South for the OCA and ruling bishop of the Bulgarian Diocese of the Orthodox Church in America.

I hope all the essays in this book can prove an encouragement to ordinary men and women facing struggles and pain.

I would be grateful for people to buy the book on Amazon and then write a review (Amazon always privileges reviews if the person writing the review has bought the book through them).

You can read more about the book on the St. Sebastian Orthodox Press website.

Further Reading

Music and the Church Fathers

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

As I’ve been reading Saint John Chrysostom’s On Marriage and Family Life, one of the things that strikes me is how concerned he was about the deleterious effects of pagan music into the Christian household.

Saint John Chrysostom (347-407) was not the only church father to have this concern. In his book A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church, Calvin Stapert shows that an abiding concern among many of the church fathers was music. This naturally included a desire to encourage the church to glorify God through hymnody, but it also involved warnings against the spiritual harm of pagan music.

This concern is not surprising. After all, the early church lived in a world where the line between Christianity and paganism was very real, very distinct and very palpable. One of the chief areas where the tentacles of paganism was felt was in popular music.

The difference between their world and ours is not that paganism no longer makes inroads into the church through music. The difference is that many Christians today no longer think that music is an area where we need to exercise discernment.

If you don’t believe me, try this little experiment. Go up to a Christian friend and start criticizing the type of music his or her church chooses to play for its worship. Nine times out of ten, the response you will get is not that your criticisms are false, but that it is based on a category mistake because this is a realm regulated by pure subjective taste.

Earlier in the year I was talking to Douglas Wilson about this. He observed that in most areas of life, Christians will agree with non-Christians that certain types of music are more suited to various activities than other types of music. It is only when it comes to the activity of worship that we make an exception and say that any type of music is just as appropriate as any other type.

Here are some examples of what I mean. If you were to ask anyone to suggest a type of music to create a festive atmosphere, or a melancholy mood, to hype someone up before a fight, to create an atmosphere appropriate for seduction or a barbecue or a birthday party, we could all name certain styles and probably even certain specific pieces. But when it comes to worship music, many Christians are hesitate to suggest that one style might be more appropriate for worship than another.

Now worship music probably shouldn’t be where we begin when we talk about music. One of the reasons why Christians are so confused about music on Sunday mornings is because they haven’t first understood about music from Monday to Saturday.

Partly this is because we haven’t understood how important music really is. It is commonly assumed among Christians that it is only the words that make a song good or bad. We’ve failed to take seriously the warnings of Plato and Aristotle on the formative power of melody, harmony and rhythm.

It is beyond the scope of this post to even begin to outline a proper theology of music. However, I do want to close by pointing to some helpful resources that can guide us to developing a musical discernment: