Joseph Campbell and Hagiography

This post is hypothesising more than anything. Please keep that in mind, in case you place great stock in Late Antique/Early Mediaeval hagiography.

In Authority and the Sacred, Peter Brown writes:

In large areas of eastern Christianity (and, if in a more diffident and spasmodic manner, also in the West) the holy man was thought to have brought back to the settle world, from his long sojourn in the wilderness, a touch of the haunting completeness of Adam. (p. 76, referencing B. Flusin, Miracle et histoire dans l’oeuvre de Cyrille de Scythopolis (Kalamazoo, Mich., 1991), pp. 34-5.)

A good example of this narrative is the life of Jacob of Nisibis, recounted by Theodoret of Cyrrhus’ in his Historia Religiosa (translated for Cistercian as A History of the Monks of Syria). Jacob was what is termed a boskos, a grazer. He lived in the wilds of Syria with no shelter and no food. He literally lived off the land, eating wild plants to sustain himself. This was his ascetic labour.

Somehow, word of Jacob’s holiness got around, and he was elected bishop of Nisibis. Reluctantly, he answered the call of the people of Nisibis and strode naked into the local church, and was duly consecrated. This anti-social character lived out the rest of his life as bishop of that city, serving the spiritual needs of his flock.

Similarly, St Hilarion (saint of the week here) spent a very long time in self-imposed exile before his monastic complex sprung up around him in Palestine. Barsanuphius of Gaza never left his retreat, bricked up in a cell in his monastery, but dispensed wisdom to many through his letters. St Symeon the Stylite (saint of the week here) spent time living as a traditional anchorite before climbing his pillar and drawing crowds; so did his imitator, St Daniel the Stylite (saint of the week here) in Constantinople.

Examples no doubt abound. The basic cycle of the story is that the holy man or woman withdraws from human society — into the wilderness, into a tomb, up a mountain, into a cave, on a pilgrimage — and there acquires holiness and access to God and the wisdom of God. This access to God (parrhesia) and power (dunamis) is acquired through ascetic struggle, through wrestling with demons, constant prayer, fasting, or wearing iron undergarments.

Then, whether he or she likes it or not, a return to society is made. Sometimes, society comes to the saint, as with Symeon the Stylite. Sometimes the saint goes to society, as with Jacob of Nisibis. Having returned to society, the saint dispenses the wisdom, holiness, and spiritual power upon the people. The saint intercedes on their behalf, with God and with local or imperial men of power.

This is the basic story.

It sounds a lot like this:

Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey

This is an image representing the most popular aspect and core thesis of Joseph Campbell’s work on comparative mythology and psychological interpretation thereof, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. According to Campbell, the vast majority of hero mythologies take this journey from the known to the unknown and back again. This is part of the archetypal universe that inhabits the subconscious of the human psyche.

I find it interesting that Late Antique and Byzantine hagiography fit this pattern. Many would probably subscribe to a statement such as, ‘Hagiography is a skillful blending of history and mythology.’ By that, however, they would usually mean that true facts about these persons are mingled with tall tales and fables. They would not mean, ‘Hagiography is mythological in that it traces the same patterns as the foundational myths of most civilisations.’

This can mean a few things. One thing this observation can mean is that the appeal of hagiography throughout the Byzantine centuries is precisely rooted in its drawing up the same archetypal motifs as all mythology. We all like mythology — Homer, Hesiod, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, the adventures of Sigurd (Siegfried). It speaks to something in the core of our being. It resonates with us.

Myths are not just stories that are untrue and that explain some religious aspect of the universe. They are often this. But they are more than this. To quote my friend Emily, something that is mythical is bigger than true. Whether such a definition helped her ESL students, who can say? But that does get at the heart of why we find the voyage of Orpheus to the Underworld or Galahad’s Quest for the Grail so compelling. They speak to our hearts and communicate realities that mere history and philosophy (and their awkward companion allegory) cannot touch.

Thus hagiography’s appeal.

Another realm for play in this discussion ties into the thoughtworld of C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien. For these Oxford dons, Christianity was the myth that came true. It was not simply the history of God with humanity. It was not simply theology. Nor was it myth in the sense of an untrue story that communicates deep truths about the world. It was a myth that actually happened.

This is to say that the mythical impulses of the Christian story — the eucatastrophy of the Easter cycle (a concept discussed in Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ — see the volume Tree and Leaf), the miracles, the events surrounding the lives of the apostles — are, in fact, historically true, just as Augustus’ victory at Actium in 31 BC is historically true. But they are still mythologically charged and speak to the mythical impulse in ourselves. It is as though the myths of the world that resemble the Incarnation are, in fact, backwards echoes of the power and incomprehensibility of God becoming man. Or that they are implantations within the human heart of the greatest story of all, a historically true story to be recognised when met.

What if, then, the mythological impulses of hagiography are real? This would presuppose the staying power of God’s presence in the world after Christ’s ascension. This would also mean that myths can be acted out in real life. Indeed, could not the appeal of Campbell’s cycle tug on the heartstrings of real men and women? Could they not live out the myth for real? It strikes me as plausible.

Perhaps we should all live out the myth. Hagiography was written to remind us that we, too, should be holy. Let us leave the familiar and combat the forces of darkness that we may return to the world of the known, bestowing the gifts of the divine upon our fellow humans.

What Good Has ‘Religion’ Ever Done?

In an age where Westboro Baptist stages its “God Hates the World” and “God Hates Fags” demonstrations, where terrorists crash airplanes into buildings (or blow them up), where Pastor Terry Jones threatens to burn the Qu’ran, where people sometimes destroy property and human life in their anti-abortion stance, where Christians who have converted from Islam are systematically tortured or executed in some countries, where former President G W Bush used biblical rhetoric to underlie engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Hindus in India attack Christian minority groups, where Christians and Muslims in Nigeria often turn to violence against one another — in such a world, many people have a hard time seeing what good “religion” and, frequently, Christianity in particular, has to offer.

Historically, it is easy to see the good that religion has done (thus giving the lie to Hitchens’ subtitle, “How Religion Poisons Everything”).  We need look no further than the hospitals of the city of Toronto, one, St. Michael’s, founded by Roman Catholics and another, Mount Sinai, by Jews.  Historically, religious people have been on the front lines of providing healthcare.  Livingstone brought both the Bible and medicine to Africa.  The first hospitals of the Byzantine and mediaeval worlds were church organisations.

Historically, the arts show us to what heights religion can take man, even if today’s “Christian Art”, be it music, novels, or trashy Jesus paintings, makes me shudder.  We have the glories of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, of Bach’s St. John Passion, of Handel’s Messiah, of Haydn’s Creation (my post on that last one here).

I have posted previously about Christian fiction — there is great narrative art from the pens of Christians, from the Anglo-Saxons to Dante to Spenser, Milton, and Bunyan to Chesterton, Waugh, Lewis, Tolkien, Buechner.  The Christian faith has produced some consummate storytellers.

Any cathedral with its stained glass intact can tell you that in no way is religion an entirely bad force.  Behold the Sistine Chapel!  Gape at the illuminated Winchester Bible!  Stand in awe before Michelangelo’s Pieta!  (Sorry I used Buonarroti twice.)  Any history of art that covers the Middle Ages and Renaissance will give a good hearty drink of what good religion can produce.

Winchester Cathedral

If you watch the video Palestrina’s link takes you to, you will see some of the architecture of the Church.  Christianity has produced some amazing architecture over the centuries.  So have Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.  When a person is striving for the highest good, when striving for something greater than one’s own petty self, beauty can be achieved.

But what good does religion do today?  A lot of people think that it has outlived its usefulness, that it has become nothing more than a source of strife and division, that our society has evolved beyond needing religion.

Well, in purely “practical” terms (ie. beyond what I see as the spiritual benefits), religion has built at least one hospital in Angola and a nursing school with it and another nursing school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  These are recent foundations.  Religion has brought many a person off the street, out of addiction, and into the workforce through organisations like the Salvation Army, Shelter House, Bethany Christian Trust.

In Toronto, I spent a good number of Saturdays at Toronto Alliance Church, the “Upper Room”.  This church is in the upper level of a storefront on Queen St. near Bathurst.  If you know Toronto, you have visions of that area with the intersecting streetcar lines, the street-health clinic, the street people, the community housing, the nifty shops, the closed down shops, the Starbucks on one corner, a mission to street people on another, Pizza Pizza the third, and a bar (now closed) on the fourth.

Every Saturday night at Toronto Alliance is “Community Night.”  There is a meal — soup & sandwich or something more filling, always warm — a clothing room full of donations people have brought, a nurse who can look after people’s feet (this is a real problem for a lot of people who live on the street), and a food bank.

Part-way through the night, the eclectic group of people who has gathered for food and friendship has a church service gathered around the tables.  There are always some of those old “revival” hymns, like “Just As I Am,” and frequently a lot of the people present know and love these hymns.  Then there is a message from someone on the church’s ministry staff; when I went, usually Bill or Doug.  The message was simple and always focussed on Jesus and the hope he brings and the change he can make.

These church services are sometimes raucous affairs.  I’ve never seen banter during an Anglican sermon, but there would be banter here.  People would often still mill about, but not many.  Some people looked uninterested, but others took a keen interest in the hymns, prayers, and sermon.

Bill, the pastor of Toronto Alliance, knows a lot of the people who come out to Community Night.  He’ll chat with them, see how they’re doing, show real concern for them and their welfare.  We often think that helping out that vague, amorphous group “the unfortunate” is a matter simply of food, shelter, clothing.  It is also very much a matter of love, as I witnessed in Cyprus, of love for the lonely, friendship for the friendless, and light for the lost.

Saturday nights at Toronto Alliance Church provide for the whole person.  That alone tells me that religion is of much good in this world, in spite of Westboro Baptist and Islamist terrorism.

Good Books Point to Others

The second great thing about Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (see original post) was the fact that it made me want to read more of the Fathers.  I think this is what most good books about Patristics should do.  Just as a book about the Bible should point us back to the Bible, a book about Homer to Homer, or a book about Tolkien to The Lord of the Rings, so books about the Church Fathers should make us ache, thirst, long, cry out for more.  This book does that.

Chiefly, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers makes me want to read in full a number of the cited texts.  Chief amongst these texts are St. Athanasius’ Orationes contra Arianos, St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ Theological Orations (on Sts. Athanasius and Gregory blowing my mind, read this), St. Augustine’s On the Trinity, St. Cyril of Alexandria’s On the Unity of Christ (I was destined to read this, anyway, given my interest in the Council of Chalcedon), St. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, St. Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church.  Not enough of us read enough of the Fathers, so anything that explains their teaching and whets the appetite for more is worth reading, in my opinion.

If you find yourself wishing to go forth, here are some thoughts:

Online Resources

-The Fathers of the Church at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, including the Ante-Nicene Fathers and both sets of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.  A very valuable resource.

Monachos.net — Orthodoxy through Patristic and monastic study.  This website has many interesting resources from the Eastern perspective.

The Fathers of the Church at New Advent.  Another collection of writings.

-There is a Patristics Bog Carnival roaming around out there, usually at hyperekperissou; this past month it was at The Church of Jesus Christ.

Primary Sources

-It’s probably a good idea, if you’ve read this book, to wrestle through some of the works that feature prominently herein and which you found yourself drawn to.  Thus, for me, I think I should especially read St. Gregory’s Theological Orations, St. Cyril’s On the Unity of Christ, and St. Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church.

-St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God.  This book is short and readable.  It presents some very compelling arguments for the incarnate Word (Jesus) being God, as well as giving the reasons why God chose to become a man.

-St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit.  This is a wonderful book about the work and person of the Holy Spirit.  St. Basil demonstrates that the Spirit is, indeed, God, using both Scripture and tradition, and then he discusses the Holy Spirit’s role in the Christian life.

-Pope St. Leo the Great, Tome to Flavian.  This short work sets forth the doctrine of two-natures Christology, which is the accepted orthodoxy of all Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox.

-The Apostolic Fathers.  These works are individually short.  I have read First Clement, St. Ignatius’ Epistle to the Ephesians, and the First Epistle of Barnabas.  They give us insight into the mind of the first generation of Christian thinkers after the Apostles, something to be valued greatly.

-Other Patristic writings worth starting off with that are not “theological” in the modern, Western sense, but in the sense that holiness can only be embodied and practised:

-St. Athanasius, The Life of St. Antony.

-St. Augustine, The Confessions.

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Secondary Sources

-Drobner, Hubertus.  The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction. Hendrickson, 2007.  This book is a “patrology.”  As an entire book, it is not an introduction to reading the Fathers.  However, it does provide concise introductions to most fathers and periods of early theological thought.

-Oden, Thomas C.  The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity. HarperOne, 2002.  In this book, Oden presents his vision of postmodern Christianity that is rooted in the premodern world of the first five centuries of consensual Christian thought, something he calls “paleo-orthodoxy.”  He believes that a rootedness in the Fathers will root us within the tradition and the Scriptures and reinvigorate the life of the Church.

-Webber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World. Baker Academic, 1999.  This is the first volume of Webber’s “Ancient-Future” series.* Webber makes a similar basic argument as Oden about revitalising the Church for the future through the wisdom of the ancients, but his audience is evangelical whereas Oden’s is mainline.  He begins the task of constructing a Christian worldview and life structured through the wisdom of the Fathers in response to the questions and new perspectives of the postmodern era.

*The others are Ancient-Future Evangelism, Ancient-Future Worship, and Ancient-Future Time.  Lots of people recommend Ancient-Future Worship; I’ve never read it, myself.