Dispassion: Jesus & Superman (also John Climacus)

Dispassion (Gk apatheia) is one of the harder aspects of traditional Christian spirituality to sell today. I know that I have a hard time with it, and when I first heard John Michael Talbot sing, ‘Prayer is the state of dispassion’, I was greatly concerned.

At first glance, this term, whether applied to humans striving for perfection or to the already perfect Jesus/God, seems to be promoting not feeling anything, living life with a lack of emotion. And, certainly, there are times when spiritual writers sound like that’s just what they want — no laughter, no tears, no swellings of emotional feeling of any type at any point.

This past Sunday morning, my friend Cory was preaching about Matthew 8:23-27, where Jesus calms the storm:

Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. 24 Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. 25 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”

26 He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.

27 The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” (NIV)

Having just finished John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent, whose second-last step is ‘Dispassion’, I couldn’t help but be struck that Jesus here is, in fact, an example of dispassion. The wind stirs, the waves rise, the rain batters from above. ‘But Jesus was sleeping.’

Jesus knows where true power lies. He can command the wind and waves to stop at any time. Therefore, he can sleep through a storm because he is not afraid of its power. One greater than the storm is here.

Jesus is chill. In it’s earliest meaning, this is what is meant to be ‘cool’ — that bad stuff doesn’t faze you, that you can handle it and be level. When great stuff comes, you don’t get too wound up, either, because you know that the great things in this temporal existence are fleeting, anyway.

A similar point was recently made about Superman, in this article by Joshua Rivera for Business Insider article a friend posted on Facebook, ‘Why Is It So Hard to Get Superman Right in Movies?‘ The quotation that sprang to mind as I mulled on Jesus in the boat this past Sunday is this one:

There’s a great anecdote that legendary comics writer Grant Morrison — the man responsible for one of the best Superman stories in recent memory, 2005’s “All-Star Superman” — tells about Superman in his memoir “Supergods.” In the memoir, he mentions the inspiration for his story — he was at a convention, and he saw a handsome man in a Superman costume just sitting down and relaxing on a stoop.

That was Morrison’s epiphany: The most powerful man alive wouldn’t be tortured but instead would be the friendliest, most relaxed person you ever saw.

Now, Superman is fictional, and none of us is ever going to be as big as Jesus. Superman can fly, shoot lasers out of his eyes, use X-ray vision, lift really heavy stuff, and is impervious to bullets. Jesus is God in the flesh; in His time on earth, He walked on water, turned water into wine, rose people from the dead, healed the sick, cast out demons, calms storms with a word, and then rose from the dead Himself.

None of us is likely ever to do the sorts of things Superman does in Action Comics, although by the grace of God I think some may do the sorts of things Jesus does in the Gospels. Either way, we are not as likely to be as chill as either Jesus or Morrison’s Superman.

John Climacus’ descriptions of dispassion and how we attain it are not exactly encouraging — unless you want to spend your whole life seeking to purified of all sin and become immersed in virtues. He writes:

If complete enslavement to passion is indicated by the fact that one quickly submits to whatever the demons have sown in us, I take it then that a mark of holy dispassion is to be able to say unambiguously: “I did not recognize the evil one as he slipped away from me” (Ps. 100:4), nor did I know the time of his coming, the reasons for it, nor how he went. I am completely unaware of such matters because I am and will ever be wholly united with God. (Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 29, trans. Luibheid & Russell, p. 284)

I’ve blogged about the passions before, so I won’t detain us long on them. But it is freedom from the disordered desires of human life that dispassion refers to. The dispassionate person is not a soulless shell with no emotion. Rather, freed (by the grace of God) from being battered all day by his or her passions, the dispassionate can see clearly, can know truly what truth and good are, what falsehood and evil are. And can live accordingly.

All of this, as the best of the spiritual guides remind us (Climacus, Cassian, Theophan the Recluse among others), is by God’s grace alone. But, typically, God brings us to such a place only through the experiences and activities of life. As G. K. Chesterton said, ‘One cannot grow a beard in a fit of passion.’ I’ve a feeling that dispassion — or, as Cassian circumlocutes is, purity of heart — is the same way.

Making Jesus weird

Coptic Icon of Christ

So, besides the fact that I simply like ancient and mediaeval Christianity (theologically, devotionally, artistically, liturgically, musically), one of the themes running through this blog is the use of our ancient and mediaeval inheritance to untame God and draw nearer to Him. Certainly my own time with the Church Fathers has helped untame my vision of God. The Fathers and monks and mystics of 2000 years of Church history have saved me from a small faith and weak theology.

In response to my post about mediaeval and Renaissance representations of Jesus as white, a friend said that most people aren’t necessarily concerned with those older representations but, rather, with the flannelgraph Jesus we all grew up with where He is so clearly just one of us white dudes in a robe. Not unlike my father.*

This comment made me think about contemporary representations of Jesus, especially in white congregations. While I think blond, Germanic Jesuses of the Early Middle Ages, or Chinese Jesuses in the 19th century, or mediaeval Jesuses who like vaguely like Buddha (also in China), or First Nations Jesuses today, maybe the time for such encultured Jesuses in white churches is over.

I’m not concerned with ‘imperialism’ or ‘racism’ here. I’m more concerned with tameness. With ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild.’

Do our ongoing white Jesuses  serve to tame the untamable? Have we made Jesus too normal? Have we lost the shock and scandal and bewilderment of the historical particularity of the Incarnation? Yes, God became one of us. And that meant a first-century Palestinian working-class Jewish guy.

That is to say, perhaps the time for this 19th-c image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, whence comes flannelgraph Jesus, I believe, has gone:

Accurate? Probably. Creepy? Definitely.

But I don’t think the BBC’s 2001 image of Jesus should ever have its day. Not because it’s untraditional but because it’s creepy. A friend of mine says that there is a stage at which computer images move from acceptable to creepy as they become more real. Like the trailers for the new Tarzan film (which I eschew on principle). I’ve seen these facial reconstructions done by osteoarchaeologists and forensic scientists before, for Pompeiians and Bog People and they are always creepy.

When I say I want Jesus to be ‘weird’, I mean I want him to be less familiar, not more creepy.

Perhaps then we can begin to be shocked anew at the sayings of the Crucified God. Perhaps we can realise that He spends a lot of time challenging our lifestyles, and that’s really uncomfortable. Perhaps.

Perhaps we can untame our theology and be seized again by the power of the Triune God who is completely beyond our understanding.

*Who has been referred to as ‘God’ by children on multiple occasions. The beard and the robes …

On Blond Jesus — how a little art history can go a long way

Not blond, but pale and skinny in this fresco by Fra Angelico in the Louvre
Not blond, but pale and skinny in this fresco by Fra Angelico in the Louvre

Everyone once in a while, someone, maybe a friend in conversation, maybe a preacher from a pulpit, will come down hard on traditional western images of Christ, saying that that pale, blond, slender Jesus is a remote image of someone who is very close. Or, as Mark Driscoll says, he can’t worship a Jesus whom he could beat up. Or there is a complaint that the white Jesus is just another example of western, imperial triumphalism over the Middle Eastern, Jewish roots of Christianity.

A few words about how misguided the above representations are in order, then.

Starting with the last first: Most of these images are too old to be imperialist. In fact, they’re often so old and from places so far removed from the Middle East that it would surprise me enormously to see a swarthy Jesus. In, say, mediaeval Norway. Third, I have a feeling that, even if the artists were thinking, ‘Let’s make Him look Jewish’, they would have made him pale, given that a lot of European Jews are, in fact, pale.

A pale Jesus from San Marco, Venice (not my pic)
A pale Jesus from San Marco, Venice (not my pic)

But just as there is more to slender, wispy mediaeval saints than their status as pillars, so also is there more to our images of Christ. We must ask ourselves why Jesus is sometimes blond, and why sometimes a fairly slender specimen of the male gender. The answer will silence those of Mark Driscoll’s ilk and hopefully be the starting place of an answer for those who find these Jesuses remote.

Mid-14th c. French diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)
He can’t help but be pale when carved out of ivory. Mid-14th c. French diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)

So, if you ever see a blond Jesus, why would that be? (Blond Jesuses are actually hard to find; mind you, my experience of looking is mostly Italian and Orthodox art.) The answer, as always with mediaeval art and architecture, is theological (who’d’ve guessed?):

Beauty.

Byzantine mosaic of the Transfiguration, 11th-12th c, Louvre (my pic)
Byzantine mosaic of the Transfiguration, 11th-12th c, Louvre (my pic)

These images are not supposed to be perfect, mimetic, historically accurate pictures of Jesus as he actually was whilst on earth. Byzantine icons (which are definitely never blond) and western mediaeval paintings/mosaics are, as Rowan Williams puts it, ‘theology in line and colour.’

Jesus is perfect. Jesus is God. He is, spiritually speaking, beautiful. In fact, He is Perfection. He is Beauty. He is the Good/Beautiful (to kalon) that Plato aspires to in the Symposium.

As a result, Jesus has a tendency to adhere to cultural standards of beauty wherever he goes. This is the short and simple answer why northern Europeans would make a blond Jesus — because they are blond. Because blond in their culture is beautiful. So Jesus is beautiful. So he is blond. And white. Like them. It is the enculturation of Christian theology and Gospel.

This, when combined with the spiritualising of the human form I blogged about earlier, produces our pale, slender Christ Crucified. Put Him in stained glass, and He also is a reminder of the Uncreated Light, drawing us upward into God with Gothic architecture and its spirituality of light and of height.

Christ in Glory
Blond Jesus, from Haworth Parish Church (my pic)

People still do this — we have black Christs, First Nations Christs, Chinese Christs. By doing this, we take the particularity of the Christian narrative — that God became a man in first-century Roman Judaea to save us — and make it universal — He did so for you, here and now in this remote corner of the world. Here in Paris, in Toronto, in Timbuktu — Christ is for you.

Chinese Jesus, ca. 1879 (thanks, Franciscans!)

And He is Beautiful.

Weaving Jesus into your spare time

Christ
Christ, Basilica of Santa Prassede, Rome. 9th-c

Here are some other thoughts about what can be worked into the day to help us focus on Jesus at work at home at play with the kids mowing the lawn eating a juicy hamburger:

Mix quality Christian books into your fun reading. At this moment, I’m not advocating City of God for every reader (although, if that’s your thing…). More like Narnia. Or Lewis’ Space Trilogy. Maybe Stephen R Lawhead for fantasy fans.

There are readable Christian books out there for readers of non-fiction, of course. Like Mere Christianity. Or Knowing God by JI Packer. Or get wild and read The Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi. Maybe read a book of saints’ lives, like Early Christian Lives, translated by Carolinne M White? Besides Milton (ohmygosh read Paradise Lost now!), read Scott Cairns or the lyrics of Charles Wesley or Gerard Manley Hopkins or whomever.

Maybe you’re not a reader. I don’t know how such people exist, but they seem to manage. In that case, find other ways to mix Jesus into your daily activities.

Every once in a while, good Christian films seem to come out. Watch them instead of something less edifying, perhaps? Go back and re-watch ones where you’re not sure about the orthodoxy of the input in your spare time, like Jesus Christ Superstar. Why not watch that? Or Brother Sun, Sister Moon, about Saint Francis of Assisi. If you like documentaries, there’s Lord, Save Us from Your Followers and Hellbound – whether you agree with the filmmakers’ perspectives, simply thinking about these issues should help us weave Christ into our lives and focus on him more.

If you’re an art-lover, you don’t even have to try to bring Jesus in. Just be more conscious in your focus, since most western art from the Early Middle Ages to some point after the Renaissance is Christian. Jesus is there. In fact, since He is Himself beautiful in a cosmic way, he is waiting to be thanked and delighted in every time you enjoy a work of art, whether it’s of waterlilies or saints or Queen Elizabeth I.

We live in an age of recorded music. Put Jesus on the stereo – Tallis, Striggio, Palestrina, Mozart, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner all wrote liturgical music and musical settings for Scripture; Handel’s oratorios are simply Baroque settings of the Bible in English. As well, the world abounds in CDs of hymns.

I grew up on a steady diet of Contemporary Christian Music. I admit that not all of it is the world’s greatest music, but I would recommend John Michael Talbot and Rich Mullins to about anyone, and still enjoying listening to new and classic Newsboys (it’s catchy) as well as good ol’ Audio Adrenaline and dc Talk. Those of you who scorn such music, please don’t judge me! Filling our ears with the truths of Christ and Scripture can help turn our hearts and minds to Him, helping us focus on Him. It’s just a matter of which track to play in iTunes or which CD to pop into the stereo.

I’m not saying to stop reading or watching or viewing or listening to the art produced by the rest of the world in our spare time. There are good theological, aesthetic, and missiological reasons to keep engaging with pagan sculptors and atheist novelists. I am not going to suddenly stop reading Isaac Asimov as part of my attempt to get more Jesus. Nor will I give up Star Trek and the Beatles. But to mix the Christian things into our downtime and our atmosphere, this is a Good Thing. It will bring Jesus more fully into our senses and into our lives.

Remember, Brother Lawrence was a lay Carmelite whose job took him to the scullery as well as across France on a vessel carrying wine. He was able to stay focussed on Christ the whole time. Frank Laubach was a missionary and literacy promoter who also trained himself to think on Christ. You can do it in whatever situation you are in and not neglect the children, the job, the boss, the spouse, the dishes, the food, the living room, the taxes.

The Kingdom of the Heavens is all around us — we don’t need to do too much that is special to start focussing on its King.

Do you really believe the Nicene Creed?

Christ the Almighty -- as so often with the Gospel in hand (by Theophan the Cretan, 15th c)
Christ the Almighty — as so often with the Gospel in hand (by Theophan the Cretan, 15th c)

I just finished Dallas Willard’s book The Divine Conspiracy. I recommend it highly! In that book, he poses us the question — Do we truly believe that Jesus is who we say He is? If we really did, wouldn’t we act a bit differently?

Putting my own ‘classic Christian’ spin on Willard’s query, who is it that we say Jesus is? We believe

in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things came to be;

who, on account of us men and our salvation, came down from heaven and became flesh from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man; and he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate and suffered and was buried and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures and ascended to the heavens and is seated on the right hand of the Father and shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, of whose kingdom there shall be no end; (Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed)

Do you believe in the depths of your soul that Jesus is true God from true God, of one substance with the Father? Do you believe that through him all things were made? Most of us will immediately say, ‘Yes.’

Certainly, we give mental assent to the propositions of the Creeds and of our denominational confessions or the doctrinal statements of ecumenical councils. Yet shouldn’t such shocking, earth-shattering truths affect how we approach life to its deepest level?

Jesus is the creator of the world. How should we, then, approach his teachings? Clearly as the teachings of the greatest moral philosopher who ever lived! And we should take them to heart. We should try to understand what they mean and how we can live by them. We should spend time reading through the Scriptures, especially the Gospels, to have these teachings of His imprinted on our hearts.

Should we not memorise and meditate upon the Lord’s Prayer? Should we not read over and over the Sermon on the Mount?

Jesus is not an intellectual, theological proposition — although these can be made about Him.

He is the most wondrous, powerful, beautiful, intelligent person in the universe. He is so loving that he chose to set aside His natural form of godliness and take on our form, that of a slave. And His immediate followers tell us that our attitude, our life, should be modelled on his.

Is it?

The limits of secure historical knowledge

So a friend on FB recently had a really annoying guy insisting in the comments on his status that St Augustine of Hippo was a closeted homosexual. The main argument of the annoying guy was simply that there is no way you can argue against saying that someone was/is a closeted homosexual, since that’s the whole point of being a closeted homosexual. Mostly, he was doing it to annoy my friend; it seemed to work.

In the case of determining whether a historical person was a closeted homosexual or not, in the absence of any evidence of said person having secret relations with men, all that can be done is a psychological analysis. And psychological analyses even of the living can be wrong — given that we have very limited knowledge about the psyches of any dead people, even ones like St Augustine or Cicero who left us so many writings, this historical psychologising can only go so far.

I would be so bold as to say that you should probably even refrain from diagnosing Roman Emperors on whom the common consensus is that they were ‘obviously’ ‘crazy’ (e.g. Caligula, Nero, Commodus).

Our knowledge of the past is always and necessarily imperfect. Our knowledge, in fact, of the present and of our own, individual selves is as well.  When we want to get back to ‘what really happened’ or ‘what so-and-so was really like’, we have to rely on the various historical sources available to us — letters, memoirs, land grants, censuses, baptismal records, art, architecture, novels, photographs, films, epic poems, epigrams, funerary inscriptions, tombs, grave goods, your mom.

The further back in history we go — generally speaking — the fewer of these kinds of evidence are available to us. And amongst the remaining varieties of evidence, there are times when even these are sparse. Sparse(ish) for Roman history is the early fifth century AD. But that’s not as sparse as most Mesopotamian history.

And even when we have first-hand accounts, many questions remain.

Take C. Julius Caesar, for example. We have all sorts of stuff written by him about his campaigns and life, and things written by his contemporaries, and things written about him by those who came after, as well as portraits and archaeological remains. But we are still uncertain as to the locations of several major battles that took place in Gaul (modern France). And, even if Adrian Goldsworthy can put together a masterful, enormous biography of the man, a lot of that is still to be admitted as not entirely secure — new evidence could change one thing or tweak another or totally abolish the veracity of a third.

These considerations should be important for each and every Christian.

The Christian fait is founded upon the historical interactions between God and the human race, most especially in the events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When ‘historical Jesus’ books appear, or when we get into arguments with people about persons or aspects of the faith, we have to realise how far the reasoned knowledge we possess can go. For example, conceptually and from a rationalist perspective, the goal of the Jesus Seminars — to determine which things Jesus did or did not say — is perceptibly laudable. It is also impossible, even with a better methodology than theirs.

Or take the Resurrection. A complaint raised against NT Wright’s book The Resurrection of the Son of God is that, at heart, much of it is old argument dressed up in contemporary methodologies. But the work of the person who said that, Robert M Price ‘the Bible Geek’, has been accused of the same thing. We have so little new evidence (i.e. none) about the Resurrection of Jesus, and the ability of historical data to pinpoint any single, precise, individual event is so weak that the arguments for something that can only run around each other in circles, no matter how clever you are.

The best NT Wright can do for Christians is demonstrate that belief in the Resurrection is not contrary to reason (that is, if you believe that a reasonable universe includes a God who acts in human history). The best the Bible Geek can do is demonstrate to those who do not believe in a bodily Resurrection that the likelihood of such an event is very small and there is no burden of historical evidence that forces them to accept it.

That is to say, history will never give us the certainty about our faith that we want it to.

What a lot of good history can do is make sense of the sources. And here is its strength. Rationalistic approaches to the past cannot say whether or not certain, particular events happened, especially the supernatural or miraculous. But they can survey a wide array of evidence from a period and give us the cultural background to help us make the stories make sense and contextualise them. They can tell us what sorts of things our ancestors thought possible or reasonable. They can tell us what sorts of events are more or less likely to have happened. They can tell us the significance of a particular event in a particular culture.

But they will never be able to prove to anyone, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Jesus rose from the dead or that St Augustine was or was not a homosexual.

Thus the limits not only of historical research but of human reason.

From the Gelasian Sacramentary

It is, indeed, right that, with hearts raised up on high, we worship the divine mystery* by which the human condition, with the old and earthly law ceasing, is brought forth as a new and heavenly substance, miraculously restored, so that which is carried out by the great gift of God may be celebrated with the great joy of the Church. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, unto the ages of ages. Amen.

From Communion Prayers at Prime for Christmas morning. My terrible translation.

*Sc. the Incarnation.

Fighting the Demons 2: Saint Savvas

Our first examination of the fight with demons was that of St. Antony, the locus classicus of the monastic fight with the Devil in the ancient world (here with an older post here), followed by an unplanned post on Shenoute’s violent treatment of “the Devil”. Our second look at fighting the demons is from another Greek biography of a desert saint, the Life of Savvas by Cyril of Scythopolis.

St. Savvas (we met him here before) was a Palestinian monk who founded several monasteries including the Great Laura which is still operational today. Savvas had as his custom to spend Lent away from the lauras and coenobia he had founded and live a life of austerity and prayer in the Judean Desert. One Lent, Savvas went to Castellion, the site of an abandoned Roman fort:

He underwent on this hill many trials inflicted by the demons. Doubtless he himself, as a man subject to fear, would have wished to withdraw, but He who had formerly appeared to the great Abba Antony appeared also to him, bidding him have confidence in the power of the Cross; so, taking courage, he overcame by faith and endurance the insolence of the demons.

While he was persevering in uninterrupted prayer and fasting, towards the end of Lent, when he was keeping vigil one night and begging God to cleanse the place from the impure spirits that lurked there, suddenly the demons began to make a beating sound and to display apparitions in the likeness sometimes of snakes and wild animals and sometimes of crows, wishing through such apparitions to terrify him. Since they were thwarted by his perseverant prayer, they departed from the place, shouting in human speech the words, ‘What violence from you, Sabas! The gorge you colonized does not satisfy you, but you force your way into our place as well. See, we withdraw from our own territory. We cannot resist you, since you have God as your defender.’ With these and similar words, they withdrew from this mountain with one accord at the very hour of midnight, with a certain beating sound and confused tumult, like a flock of crows. (Ch. 27, pp. 119-120 in English, trans. R. M. Price)

Following Savvas’ ordeal at Castellion, the old remains of the fort were converted into a coenobium, a monastery where the monks share together a communal life.

Our first point is to see that Christ again, as with St. Antony (but not Shenoute), plays a role. He appears to Savvas and gives him courage, calling him to “have confidence in the power of the Cross.” Christ is the true champion defender of the Christian. He fights alongside us and gives us the strength we need, whether our battle be with demons on a hilltop or the darkness of sin in our own souls. Christ is there to give his followers the strength they need.

The power of Christ is given to us in the power of the Cross. As I mentioned in my post “From what are we saved?”, Pope Leo saw in the Cross, alongside the defeat of sin and death, the defeat of the Devil and his minions. When we put our trust in Christ, our trust in his sacrifice at Golgotha, he gives us the benefits of his most precious death and resurrection. This includes power not only over sin and death but over the Devil.

Thus, trusting the great power of Christ in His Cross, Savvas was able to withstand the forces of the demons.

And what is in the saint’s arsenal against the demons as he trusts in Christ’s Cross? Prayer, fasting, vigils. These are the standard weapons in the battle against the demons. As we trust in the power of the Cross, we pray, we fast, we stay up through the night. Through these actions, in the battle against evil, be it demons appearing as snakes or late-night porno on the internet, the Christian is able to overcome the evil of the world.

Prayer is a given. I think most Christians pray. My (Anglo-Catholic) uncle once said that if you don’t pray and read your Bible, what business do you have calling yourself a Christian?

Fasting is less popular today. It is one of the neglected disciplines, even though Christ seems to imply it is something that his followers will do after the Ascension (see Mt. 6:16-18). If you are interested in fasting, I recommend you read Wesley’s sermon on the subject.

Vigils are even less popular. Oddly, some of the monks of the Desert believed that sleep deprivation was a help in the fight against demons, even though I, personally, find myself stirred up to irascibility much more easily when I haven’t got enough sleep. Nonetheless, I think that sometimes maybe we should organise groups of people to spend the entire night praying. Or to ensure that the entire time a particular event is occurring that there is someone praying, night and day. This soaking of the world in prayer is, I believe, a way to keep us focussed on the spirit, a way to keep us alert against the demons and the evil within us and around us.

These, then, are the lessons we can gain from the example of St. Savvas and the demons.

Shenoute and the Demons: The Limits of Hagiography

I tend to try and find something edifying in much of what I read. So weird stories about demons and stuff don’t necessarily bother me, so long as the example of the monk or the lesson about who God is can be of use. However, despite much wisdom having come from the desert tradition, not everything the Desert Fathers and Mothers had to say and do was necessarily a good idea.

Now, these days most people get uncomfortable with desert monks because of their strong emphasis on avoiding other people. This is a justifiable concern — St. Basil the Great held it as a criticism of his time in Egypt. If you don’t spend time with others, how can you even begin to fulfill the commandments? Nevertheless, this has never been a great concern of mine largely because the monks who say, “Avoid people,” said it to people whom they were ostensibly avoiding.

More troubling is Shenoute, Archimandrite of the White Monastery in Upper Egypt from 385 to 465. Shenoute, as we see him in Besa’s Life of Shenoute, was a violent man whose idea of God’s forgiveness was that one is only forgiven after a sufficient penance set by Shenoute. Or a criminal’s repentance is not enough for salvation — he must also go to the secular authorities and be executed to reach paradise. He is a hard man, dried by the sun and his sparse diet, but it also feels at times that his soul and his very self are hard and dried out.

So when we consider Shenoute and demonology, we come across this story:

One day, when my father was sitting in the monastery, behold! the devil and a host of other demons with him came in and spoke to my father with great threats and wickedness. When my father saw the devil, he recognised him immediately, and straightaway he sprang upon him and grappled with him. He seized him, hurled him to the ground and placed his foot on his head, and shouted to the brothers who were nearby: ‘Seize the others who followed him!’ And they immediately vanished away like smoke. (Ch. 73, trans. David N. Bell for Cistercian)

Was this even the Devil? I mean, what if it was just an angry dude who Shenoute beat up? Or did it even happen? This is certainly a Frank Peretti moment in the world of ancient demonology, is it not?

The root and source of our tradition is Christ. Never does Christ beat up the Devil or step on his head. The Gospels are subtler than that — their presentation of the Devil is subtler than that! The Devil is a tempter in relation to Jesus. The demons, the unclean spirits, are beings that possess people in the Gospels.

The true defeat of the devil does not happen in a wrestling match in your living room or the forecourt of the White Monastery. It occurred on Golgotha when the Lord and King of the universe bled and died for His broken creation. It happened in the three days when that same Lord burst forth from the grave, trampling down death in victory.

Stories like this are there merely to enhance the prestige of their saint. One could argue that that is the whole point of hagiography, but I disagree; hagiography, at least most of what I’ve been reading, is about Christ and his power in people. Christ does not show up in this story, unlike in yesterday’s story of St. Antony.

The desert has its limits. As the desert tradition is gaining a certain amount of popularity today, as it encroaches upon our spirituality, let us stay grounded to the Scriptures and the broader tradition before we start going in for stories about monks who beat up the Devil.

From what are we saved? Scriptural, Liturgical, and Patristic Answers

In my post against the Prosperity Gospel (and in favour of St. Clement of Alexandria), I made it clear that neither Scripture nor the Great Tradition affirms the idea that Jesus Christ saves people from poverty, illness, small houses, small cars, bad jobs, mean people, etc, and that all we need for such “victory living” is faith.

However, Christianity does affirm that Jesus saves. The salvation offered by Jesus is not just the sort of thing dc Talk sings about involving “a man with a tat on his big, fat belly,” or an invention of revivalistic evangelicalism in the Welseyan era.

According to Scripture, Jesus saves; here are a few quotations (all NIV):

She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. (Mt 1:21)

You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Mt 10:22)

For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. (Mk 8:35)

For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. (Lk 19:10)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (Jn 3:16-17)

I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. (Jn 10:9)

“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” (Acts 16:31)

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

But from what are we saved? Many people have given answers to this, and I believe that many of them catch different aspects of the same reality of Christ’s saving work in the life of those who put their trust in him.

Traditionally, the sacrament of baptism has been the moment of entry into Christ’s church; let us not forget St. Peter in Acts telling people to “repent and be baptised” as the way of salvation. We shall be highly Anglican at this point, and turn to liturgy to consider salvation.

We start with the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer (1662). Anglicans practise infant baptism, where the parents and godparents make the baptismal vows in the child’s place:

Question. What did your Godfathers and Godmothers then for you?
Answer.They did promise and vow three things in my name. First, that I should renounce the devil and all his works, the pomps and vanity of this wicked world, and all the sinful lusts of the flesh. Secondly, that I should believe all the Articles of the Christian Faith. And thirdly, that I should keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of my life.

Question. Dost thou not think that thou art bound to believe, and to do, as they have promised for thee?
Answer. Yes verily: and by God’s help so I will. And I heartily thank our heavenly Father, that he hath called me to this state of salvation, through Jesus Christ our Saviour. And I pray unto God to give me his grace, that I may continue in the same unto my life’s end.

Later in the Catechism we read that baptism is “a death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.”

From these two moments in the Catechism, we learn that salvation, as symbolised/enacted/recapitulated in the sacrament of Holy Baptism, is a renunciation of the devil and all his works, the empty things of the world, and of sin — indeed, it is “a death unto sin.”

Having died to sin and made this renunciation, the baptised Christian is in the “state of salvation” already.

This point is an important one, for many would tell us that salvation is merely a “Get out of Hell Free” card, a ticket to Heaven when we die. According to the Anglican tradition, such is not the case. Rather, salvation is a state in which we dwell here on earth. We are saved in this earthly existence from the world, the flesh, and the devil.

The world, in this instance, is not the entire universe or the globe of the earth but, rather, those aspects of the world around us that are evil or tend towards evil. Such is the traditional Christian understanding of “the world” in moments as this (see the ever-popular Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way on this).

The flesh is not your body. It that inner part of you that tends towards evil. As quoted before, Sergei Bulgakov (quoted by Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way) says, “Kill the flesh, in order to acquire a body.”

The devil is not a red guy with goat legs and a pitch-fork. He is also, however, not simply the psychological world of the subconscious that swirls around tempting us in various ways — that would be the flesh. As Robertson Davies says in Happy Alchemy, “People don’t believe in the devil nowadays; that is one of the devil’s favourite jokes.”

The devil is a personal force of evil with minions, just as angels are personal forces of good. The power of the devil is primarily in his ability to tempt us towards evil. His temptations are those that don’t seem to come exclusively from within ourselves nor really from the world around us. They are diabolical; but our flesh is always the deciding factor when we sin. As agents with freewill, we choose sin all by ourselves. The devil just helps us along.

According to Pope St. Leo the Great, the devil has had another role in human history. After the Fall, according to Leo, the devil received the souls of the dead humans and took them to Hades. This was his … em … job. We read:

the Son of God took on Him the nature of mankind in order to reconcile it to its Maker, that the devil, the inventor of death, might be conquered through that very nature which had been conquered by him. (Sermon 21.1; trans. W Bright, my emphasis)

For if Godhead by itself were to stand forth in behalf of sinners, the devil would be overcome rather by power than with reason. And again, if the mortal nature by itself were to undertake the cause of the fallen, it would not be released from its condition, because it would be free from its stock. Therefore it was necessary that both the Divine and human substances should meet in our Lord Jesus Christ, that our mortal nature might, through the Word made flesh, receive aid alike from the birth and passion of a new Man. (Sermon 56.1; trans. W Bright, my emphasis)

Leo is a master rhetorician who uses evocative language and series of balances and antitheses to make his points about who Jesus is and what Jesus does for us. In these two passages, Leo speaks of Jesus’ action towards the devil (something not lacking in other of his sermons or the Tome). The devil has been beaten by Jesus; he has been beaten through Our Lord’s incarnation and passion. Jesus’ death on the Cross destroyed the power of the devil.

Jesus, perfect God and perfect man, died as a criminal. Having lived a sinless life, his soul was not the property of the devil. As God, death was not part of his nature. Thus, the Crucified God “trampled down death with death.”* He defeated the devil and served as a ransom for our souls — none of us, as a result, need have his’er soul taken by the devil.

This brings us to what else Jesus saves us from — death. This part of salvation is the bit that most people tend to think of when they hear, “Jesus saves.” We have been trained to think thus, “Ask Jesus into your heart, say sorry for the bad things you have done, and you will not go to Hell when you die.” Sometimes, the Hell bit is skirted and we are told, “And you will live forever with Him in heaven.”

This salvation from death is present from the days of the Apostles, of course — “Death, where is thy victory?” (1 Cor 15:55) — and is not to be played down, as the BCP ensures it is not, as in Publick Baptism of Infants:

Almighty and everlasting God … We beseech thee, for thine infinite mercies, that thou wilt mercifully look upon this Child; wash him and sanctify him with the Holy Ghost; that he, being delivered from thy wrath, may be received into the ark of Christ’s Church; and being stedfast in faith, joyful through hope, and rooted in charity, may so pass the waves of this troublesome world, that finally he may come to the land of everlasting life, there to reign with thee world without end; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Nonetheless, our salvation, even here where an important part of the prayer is that the child may have “everlasting life” — ie. not die — a great concern is present for this life being lived with Christ.

To take all these swirling bits of things, Scriptural, liturgical, patristic, we see that Jesus does not save us from poverty or illness. Not as a general rule, anyway. He saves us from death — this is both the current notion of Heaven vs. Hell and the older, traditional notion of “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come” (see my trans of the Apostle’s Creed).

He saves us from the world, the flesh, the devil.

By his grace (favour), he gives us the strength we need to resist temptations and fight evil (we fight evil by waging peace).  When Jesus saves us, we have the ability to do good things. We are released from the stranglehold sin has over us. As time goes on, sin should become more and more infrequent as we rely on his grace and his power. (This is why my wrangling with Pelagians counts, by the way.) Part of salvation is trusting in Him for this strength rather than ourselves.

These 1776 words leave us with another question, and that one is important: How are we saved? Someday I’ll tell you. 😉

If I’m not making sense, tell me and I’ll be more coherent.

*Paschal Troparion of the Eastern Orthodox Church.