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Posts Tagged 'st. john chrysostom'

In which St. John Chrysostom shows up on another digital bumper sticker

This has been one of the more stressful semesters of my college career. Not quite the most stressful, but there has definitely been plenty of pressure.

I started off with my Latin exam. Then I was going to have a relatively nice and easy semester preparing for my quals, for which I sit on 29 March. Flesh of My Flesh had a cushy-ish research assistantship that could be done from home, so there was supposed to be very little going on to distract from what we needed to do to get through the term.

Er, well, no.

Megan got a last-minute teaching assignment right after I took my Latin exam; one of her faculty members had a personal concern that took him out of the classroom on literally a couple of hours’ notice, and she got handed his class — a 400-level content course in German. It meets an hour before the class I’m assisting with on Monday and Wednesday, and then at the same time as one of my lecture sections on Friday. This means every day is a juggling act with Theodore Harvey Barrett The Second The Bouncing Baby Boy, and has effectively meant that for either of us to get anything done, we either have to have a babysitter or the other person has to get nothing done. In a way, this really has turned out to be an ideal semester to give up having four services a week to chant (although I am chanting at Holy Apostles now, which has been really nice on several levels), but it’s still been, shall we say, less than restful.

I’m also in full-blown “Hi, I’m a professional late antique Roman historian” mode, which means that when I see quotes that purport to be from somebody I study but with no citation, I instinctively start asking questions, as I’ve done before.

So, yesterday, I see a few people start to post this on Facebook:

“A young husband should say to his bride: ‘I have taken you in my arms, and I love you, and I prefer you to my life itself. For the present life is nothing, and my most ardent dream is to spend it with you in such a way that we may be assured of not being separated in the life reserved for us.’” — St. John Chrysostom

That’s a lovely sentiment, it truly is, and it is one that I would never want to slap down, exactly. If Chrysostom said it, that’s fantastic. Still, something about it felt “off”, and without the citation, it seemed like it would be worth seeing if I could track it down. Part of it was that I’m sure my previous effort likely struck some as an ideological project; I tried to make it clear that it wasn’t an ideological project at all, but rather an accuracy project. If that “quote” about how the rich “will joyfully share their wealth” isn’t legitimate (and so far nobody has come up with anything substantial to indicate that it is), then it doesn’t help anybody’s side to continue to circulate it under Chrysostom’s name. (No, I’m not going to tell you which side I agree with on that — i.e., whether or not I wish it were authentic. My politics are my own business, and current politics are actually among the things in the world in which I am least interested.) So, anyway, if that wasn’t ideological, then I should be willing to do that kind of work even when it’s a greeting-card sentiment that surely everybody should unambiguously approve of, right? Exactly.

Off to Google I went. I couldn’t come up with anything searching on that text except for, well, the quote presented as the quote. A TLG search on Greek keywords like νύμφη (bride) and ὄνειρος (dream) came up with nothing that looked anything like it. I also didn’t find anything in Chrysostom on Marriage and Family Life that resembled the passage in question. None of this necessarily meant anything except that I hadn’t found the right keywords, of course.

Finally, somebody pointed me to this page, which presented the text this way:

The words of one of the greatest-ever preachers, St John Chyrsostom, might deepen the question. He said that a young husband should say to his bride: “I have taken you in my arms, and I love you, and I prefer you to my life itself. For the present life is nothing, and my most ardent dream is to spend it with you in such a way that we may be assured of not being separated in the life reserved for us” (Homilies on Ephesians, 20,8).

There are a couple of useful bits of information there. There is the citation, of course. There’s also the incipit of the quote as it appears on Facebook, “…a young husband should say to his bride”, except it’s not actually in the quoted text. It’s the introduction to the quote, not part of the quote itself. By the time it gets to Facebook, however, it’s part of the quote. Someday, I’m sure, textual criticism of the Internet will be its own scholarly field. Things like this will be among the phenomena to study, I’m sure.

The citation allowed me to look up the Greek text on TLG. I have to say, at best, the quote is a rather, uh, free paraphrase of the Greek, and it’s also somewhat out of context. Here it is with some context (translation mine):

“For if Paul did not refrain from saying, ‘Do not deceive each other,’ and he was speaking the words of a bridesmaid, or rather not of a bridesmaid but a spiritual soul, by much more we will not refrain from saying [the same thing]. What, then, is it necessary to say to her? With great grace indeed [it is necessary] to be saying to her: ‘I took you, child, as a sharer of life, and I led you in to the most serious and necessary things as one sharing them with me, [namely] in the begetting of children and the leadership [or protection — the word is προστασία, the same word we call the Mother of God in the usual Sunday kontakion — “Protection of Christians that cannot be put to shame…” etc.] of the household. How, then, will I encourage you?’ Rather, before this, speak of the matters of love [ἀγάπη]. For there is nothing that thus avails to persuade the ones hearing to welcome the things said [to persuade one to listen to what you’re saying] than to learn that it is spoken with much love [ἀγάπη]. How then do you show love [ἀγάπη]? If you say, ‘Being able to take many women, both more well-provided-for and of clear lineage, I didn’t choose [them], but I was longing for you, and your conduct, your propriety, your graciousness, your prudence.’ Then immediately from these things prepare a way of words concerning philosophy, and in a roundabout way [lit. ‘with a way around’] denounce wealth. For, on the one hand, if you simply prolong your speech against wealth, you will be burdensome; but on the other hand, if the subject is taken up, you will finish quickly. For you will seem to do this thing in the manner of explanation, not as somebody strict and graceless and of small account. But when you take up this subject in a way related to her [lit. ‘from her things’], it will even be enjoyable.

You, then, will say (for again it is necessary to take up the speech)…”

Here I must pause to note that everything up to this point is what the Facebook quote glosses as “A young husband should say to his bride…”, and we’ve still got some other stuff to go:

“…’it was possible and easily done to marry a rich woman [or, “it was was possible to marry a rich and well-provided for woman”], but I did not suffer it. Why, do you suppose? Not simply, or haphazardly, but I was educated well, that wealth is no possession but a contemptible thing, belonging to thieves and prostitutes and grave-robbers. On which account giving up these things, I came upon the virtue of your soul, which I value above all gold. For an intelligent and free young woman cultivating the fear of God is worthy of the entire known world [οἰκουμένη, which strikes me as also being something of a pun on the idea of the household]. On account of these things…”

…and now we finally get to what the quoted passage says:

“I embraced you for my own, and I am giving you affection [φιλῶ], and I am setting you over my own soul [προτίθημι is the same word used to denote a liturgical offering to God, so Chrysostom may be suggesting something of the sacramental nature of marriage here]. For the present life is nothing, and I pray and I request and I do everything so that we are counted worthy to stand this present life, and to be able to be with each other there in the age to come with much freedom from fear.”

And that’s the end of the quotation. As I said, what’s on Facebook is a rather free paraphrase that shades it more towards notions of romantic love that, while not necessarily wrong, aren’t really what Chrysostom is talking about. The next little bit also seems quite relevant:

“For on the one hand this time [χρόνος, earthly time] is short and perishable; on the other hand, if we, being pleasing to God, are counted worthy to change this life for that one, we will be always both with Christ and with each other with the fullness of pleasure. I set your love [ἀγάπη] before everything, and nothing is thus difficult or burdensome to me as when I quarrel with you. Even if it should be necessary that I lose everything, that I become poorer than Irus [a beggar in The Odyssey], that I endure extreme dangers, that I suffer anything whatsoever, to me everything is tolerable and bearable, as long as matters for you are well-ordered for me. And children will then be desirable for me, as long as you are favorably disposed towards me. But it will be necessary that you do these things too.'”

The whole homily is very much worth reading, but again, it’s pretty clear to me that what Chrysostom is saying is very different than what the short paraphrase suggests. The old Schaff Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers translation can be found here; if you read Greek, you can find it in TLG (PG 62.146-147).

So, yeah. Don’t trust greeting-card-style quotes that are attributed to Chrysostom, I guess. He was a pretty grumpy saint for such quotes to be reliably authentic.

Back to exams…

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Facebook and digital bumper stickers

I have no idea who Demetri Martin is, except that my godson Lucas often quotes the following from him: “A lot of people don’t like bumper stickers. I don’t mind bumper stickers. To me a bumper sticker is a shortcut. It’s like a little sign that says ‘Hey, let’s never hang out.'”

Things that people post on Facebook can be like bumper stickers, except they can be a lot longer, and they can be intended to be seen by a key group of people whom they know will get that warm and fuzzy feeling in their stomach that one gets when one hears a clever soundbite that they agree with. Or both.

Here are a couple of recent examples — “recent” meaning “having shown up a lot over the last several months/years, and it’s only in the last week that I’ve finally hit the last straw with them”:

Exhibit A: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” – Anne Lamott

I’m not the world’s biggest Anne Lamott fan, and I find this particular gem to be really annoying with its oh-so-cleverly-stated, but still intellectually dishonest, tone. On the other hand, I assume God loves Anne Lamott, so I guess at least on that point, I pass her cute little test. Still, the “Very Liberal And You Know It Because I Put the Word ‘Very’ In Front of It on Facebook” crowd can’t help but rah-rah this whenever it shows up, and the cycle seems to take about a week.

Yeah, yeah, fine, I’m uncharacteristically grumpy. I’m about to turn 35; I guess it happens. Rassafrassafrickfrackindamnkidsgetoffmylawn. Let me clarify a couple of things.

First — I find that, for my own sanity, Anne Lamott is best treated as what we might call devotional satire. Satire is great, love satire, but it seems to me that with most satire, if you’re not the target audience then you’re just the target, and I’m acutely aware when I encounter Lamott’s writings that I am not the target audience.

Second — I actually don’t disagree with what I see as the broader point here; I just don’t find that Lamott has put it in a terribly constructive way. It’s intellectually dishonest because it’s pointing the finger at people who point the finger to show them why pointing the finger is wrong (language I borrow from anti-death penalty slogans — “Why do we kill people who kill people in order to show that killing people is wrong?”). That said, it’s a kind of intellectually dishonesty that’s fairly common to satire, so perhaps what bothers me about it is a feature and not a bug, and again, I’m just not part of the target audience.

So, thought experiment time. Let’s take somebody like, say, Frederica Mathewes-Green, or to take it several hundreds of steps further, Ann Coulter, and let’s say that she comes up with a pithy, digestible quote that goes something like this: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God approves of everything you do.” This would be a problematic statement, right? It would be smug, cloying, and it would smack of trying to generate a spiritual fist-pump from everybody who already agrees with you as well as pointing the finger at everybody who doesn’t, not-so-subtly (explicitly, really) accusing them of bad faith.

And I think you’d be right to think that. I’d have the same problem with such a statement. To me, there’s a bigger picture here that can be stated constructively (and maybe even catechetically): God, when we follow Him, will challenge our comfort zones. That’s a great thing to be reminded of; I sure need reminders of that, constantly. As stated by Lamott and hypothetical-Mathewes-Coulter, however, it’s put in a manner that’s intended to provoke self-righteous indignation against Everybody Who’s Like That. And it seems to me, from what I have encountered of Lamott’s work, that she probably would howl at my hypothetical reversal. So, yes, while I need reminders of the broader point, I do not seek them from Anne Lamott as a rule. She’s no St. John Chrysostom, as far as I’m concerned.

At least, that’s how I see it, which, to get back to my first point, maybe just all underscores that — say it with me — I am not part of the target audience for Anne Lamott.

If that makes me a grump who’s just wrong about this, well, fine, but just so you know it’s not just squishy lefty nonsense that bugs me but also let’s-have-Glenn-Beck-rewrite-history right-wing crap, there’s also this:

Exhibit B: “‘Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm. Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold form the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first – and then they will joyfully share their wealth.’ St. John Chrysostom on the poor from On Living Simply XLIII.”

First of all, I’d like to point out that I included the attribution as part of the quote. That’s key here.

There are several problems with this. One, there is no Chrysostom homily called “On Living Simply XLIII”. On Living Simply is a collection of what are supposedly Chrysostom quotes edited by somebody named Robert Van de Weyer, and this is passage #43 in that volume. Unfortunately, Van de Weyer has not actually sourced these passages in any way that would actually tell anybody where he got them.

Now, I am not accusing Van de Weyer of making anything up. I have no evidence that he made anything up. I’m going to assume that he got the quote in a manner similar to how everybody is getting it from him (and this XKCD cartoon is perhaps relevant to the discussion). However, I do know two things:

1) Catherine Roth didn’t include anything vaguely like this reference in her compilation of Chrysostom’s greatest hits on the topic, On Wealth and Poverty. Now, that in and of itself could just be evidence that she didn’t include it, not that it doesn’t exist. Proving a negative is always really difficult.

2) Still, Thesaurus Linguae Graecae is text-complete for Chrysostom, and searching the corpus on various key Greek words that the English version of the passage suggests should be there comes up with nothing that looks anything like this. Gotta be careful with TLG, because as I’ve found out, searching on Chrysostom can for some reason trip their “He could be illicitly downloading all of our ancient Greek texts!” sensor, but I spent a good hour or so poking around for something that could even be loosely translated like this, and there’s nothing.

On a conceptual level, though — this “Chrysostom” claims that the wealthy will “feel bitter and resentful” as part of the argument against taxes. Well, here’s something I’m reasonably certain from sourced quotations that St. John Chrysostom did say:

…God says, “The earth has brought forth her increase, and you have not brought forth your tithes; but the theft of the poor is in your houses.” Since you have not given the accustomed offerings, He says, you have stolen the goods of the poor. He says this to show the rich that they hold the goods of the poor even if they have inherited them from their fathers or no matter how they have gathered their wealth. And elsewhere the Scripture says: “Deprive not the poor of his living.” To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others. By this we are taught that when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal. (Chrysostom, Sermon II on Lazarus and the Rich Man, trans. Roth)

Yeah, I can’t really say that I buy that Chrysostom actually cares about whether or not the wealthy will “feel bitter and resentful”.

“Well, I don’t care who actually said it, it’s still right,” I’ve heard a couple of people say to this. It actually matters quite a bit whether or not Chrysostom said it, and I think we all know this and why. Chrysostom is being given as the authority for something that looks like a remarkably specific policy position that is quite relevant to the present day. If he in fact said this, it carries a lot of a particular kind of weight; if he can’t be accurately cited as the source, then it doesn’t carry the same weight. One may still agree with it, but it doesn’t have the same kind of authority behind it.

Now, what I’m not saying is, “So, of course, Marx is how we deal with this.” All I’m saying is that, until Van de Weyer (or somebody) actually cites a source that can be checked, it is irresponsible to attribute this passage to Chrysostom. It may well be an ideological position that some find attractive, and it may well be what some convicted Christians believe is the “Christian position” and thus would love to have support for from the words of the Golden Mouth, but as of this moment, the matter of whether or not he actually said it is pretty sketchy. Whether or not I myself agree with the content of the passage is not relevant; the point is responsible attribution of texts, and I have yet to see that Van de Weyer has done so.

So bottom line for the evening is that Anne Lamott is no St. John Chrysostom, and as presented by Van de Weyer, Chrysostom’s no Chrysostom either. So can we pick some other bumper sticker-style pithy and clever quotes for our Facebook walls, please? Damnkidsgetoffmylawn.

John Michael Boyer: “Why do we need beautiful music in church?” “So that it gives us joy in church”

We had Andrew Gould’s answer a bit ago as to why we need beautiful churches; last weekend, we got John Michael Boyer’s answer to the question, “Why do we need beautiful music in those churches?” What John said is of a somewhat different tone than what Andrew told us; it is less theoretical and more practical, but to that extent I think the answers complement each other. John provides an excellent patristic reference for his practicality, and I think he says a number of things worth thinking about. I’ll have more to say shortly.

(I will note that, thanks to how the acoustics at All Saints work, or rather don’t work, I had to be a bit creative in figuring out how to edit this so that it could be heard. There are still a couple of spots that are wonkier than I’d like, but I think it’s all audible. It looks like every second of decay in the proposed new temple will cost us approximately $1 million, so please pray for our building project!)


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