Month: May 2015

No Saints=No Sanity: Seeing Womanhood

Father Seraphim Rose once said, “Pornography is the devil’s iconography.”  These days, the world of porn has become so exploitive of women that the founder of Hustler Magazine has said the industry has gone to far.  The women are subjected to acts of force, gross acts, and violence that are way too graphic and distasteful to describe.  To make matters worse, kids are vewing such things online with no safeguards on computers.  Grown men can visit these sites in public libraries.  In one anti-porn video, a porn user professed that such movies show men what women want.  While it can be argued that the girls who do porn do so in their own free will, I doubt that a naked 19 or 20 year old young lady has much decision making power in a room with two or more men, especially if any of them are old enough to be her father.

Aside from such extreme forms of porn, there is a type of imagry I call, “chicken porn” (porn for men who are too afraid to look at the real thing).  Images of women in sexually suggestive clothing and poses that are found in mainstream magazines.  Anyone who has seen the recent cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue can understand what I am talking about.  A young lady wearing a bikini swimsuit at a beach or pool is not unusual nor necessarily offensive.  But, to have her pose pulling down her bikini is uncalled for.  Women don’t do this in normal visits to beaches and pools.  This was done only to encourage men and boys to want to see more of her body.  For the porn industry, such images seve as business cards for the more “reputable” companies and the more rancid ones as well.

The Theotokos, the Virgin Mary, is praised for her ever virginity.  In traditional Byzantine iconography, she is clothed in a blue garment and head covering to show her humanity.  Covering these clothes is a red garment over her head and body to show that she has put on divinity.  With few exceptions (such as the Annunciation and Dormition), Mary is holding the Christ Child in one arm with her other hand motioning to Him.  Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and the first wave of Protestants hold this image in high regard as the highest saintly model of womanhood.

Mary of Egypt was far from being a virgin.  But, ancient Christianity holds her in very high regards as a prototype for repentance.  In most icons, she is all skin and bones wearing only the black outer garment given to her by the monk Zosimas.  After repenting of her sexual depravity, Mary lived in the desert east of the Jordan River alone placing repentance more important than food, shelter, or clothing.  While no one today is called to that extreme, we see in her that turning one’s life around from wickedness to righteousness is not a one time act.  We are to be consistent and humble; willing to forsake even basic comforts for the heavenly kingdom.

Radical Reformed Protestantism and modern Evangelicalism tells society that holy icons are mere idols and it is not fit for Christians to revere the people represented in these images.  As America and Western Europe is dominated by this mindframe, it is no coincidence that porn dominates these nations.  By taking away the holy images of womanhood, it is inevidable that Satan has all but won the icon war by flooding our word with hard and soft core images of female exploitation.  According to the Desert Fathers, lust is the hardest of the sins for people to avoid.  Holy images of female saints are tools to help us overcome wicked thoughts.  What we set our eyes toward becomes etched in our minds.  If you take away a carpenter’s tools, it is very difficut for him to build a proper house.  Iconoclasim has been a total failure in helping create a society where a woman’s purity, either as a virgin or wife, is honored and respected.

People who struggle with distorted sexuality would do well to look into the Orthodox Church not because we are perfect (oh, that we were).  But, because we encourage men and women to use the examples of holy men and women as well as the Bible to overcome their sins.  In our great cloud of witnesses are saints who struggled with their urges and passions just like we do today.  Their stories tell us that there is victory through Jesus Christ.  The victory may not be quick nor easy.  But, if we endure even to the end, we will win because our Lord won the battle against death and corruption with His death and resurrection.  This isn’t something that we only read in the scriptures, speak in prayers, an sing in songs.  This is what we behold in our eyes as well.

Failure of the Falcon Horus

Critics of the history of Jesus say that the parallels between the ideology of Horus and that of the story of Jesus indicates that they are the same story, just different time periods. However, this idea fails to take into account that the belief in Horus is one that spans thousands of years and many different versions. Each era of belief in Horus would have believed in different versions of the god, none of which match up with the accounts of Jesus. ——— from Ancient Egypt Online

I can understand why any African American would be disillusioned with Western Christianity.  We were brought here as slaves on the good ship “Jesus” and were taught Bible passages to keep us under control.  Despite becoming Baptist, Methodist, and the like; many of our white “brothers and sisters” either passively supported the idea of racial supremacy, or were active in its propagation in groups such as the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.  Even today, racist white American Christians have trouble admitting their wrongs and mask their feelings under a veneer of politics and social observations.  Although there are mixed congregations and most mainline denominations (including the Southern Baptist Convention which recently had a black president) have publicly repented of their bigoted past, too many of us have been hurt too deeply to trust that Christianity is the true faith.  We have been beaten over the head with too many Nordic images of Jesus, “explanations” of why our brown and black skins doomed us for enslavement, and justifications of how God intended to keep the races separate while our women were being raped.  The fact that most African Americans remain Christians is a miracle of God.  It is a wonder that more of us have not given up on the Jesus of Western Christendom.

However, I believe throwing the baby out with the bath water is not a good idea.  This is what several of us are doing by rejecting Christianity all together.  For example, a friend considers the Egyptian god Horus to be a true deity and Jesus a lie as it seems that the Virgin Birth, miracles, and death and resurrection narrative is a copy of the story of Horus.  To be certain, the similarities are unmistakable.  But like the Jewish religion, the story of Horus was a foretaste of Jesus as the Son of God.  By comparison, Horus falls short of being a god worthy of worship.

The Egyptian god Horus

Horus was only one of several Egyptian deities.  Ra, Anubis, Mut, Thoth, and others were worshiped equally in this polytheistic religion.  In fact, each district along the Nile had its own god.  The primary god that was recognized by all was Ra, the creator of all things.  Depending on what version of Egyptology you read, Horus was not the son of this primary god.  About 2000 B.C., many Egyptians attributed his parents to be Osiris and Isis and they were either close cousins or even brother and sister.  After Osiris was murdered by his brother Seth, Isis impregnated herself on the one part of her husband that was functional, his penis, before bringing him back to life with the help of the god Anubis.

Thus, there are a few serious problems with Horus.  As he was not the son of the creator god, he had no spiritual supremacy over any of the other deities.  He was just another god that could be taken seriously, or left alone.  Even if he were the son of Ra, that still didn’t give him supremacy to any other god such as Geb (the earth god) or Hathor (love and fertility).  In fact, Seth, the god of evil who killed Horus and his father Osiris, was made the god of storms by Ra.  Neither Horus nor Ra punishes the source of evil.  The influence of Horus was still limited as to the more important local gods such as Apis, the god of strength, who was adored in Memphis or Meretseger of Thebes who rewarded the good and punished the evil.   Not only was Horus the son of a minor god, he was a child of incest as no ancient culture permitted the marriage of close cousins and even more so brothers and sisters.

Why would indigenous Egyptian Christians accept the Virgin Birth narrative of Jesus and reject that of the older and native Horus?  Because Horus was not a divine being with any true power, worshiping him was optional as he was a lesser of a lesser god born under an unlawful and strange circumstance.  And evil was still tolerated among the Egyptian gods.   When the Apostle Mark brought the Gospel to the Egyptians, they recognized the Virgin Birth narrative.  But, they learned that Jesus was (and is) the Son of God.  The same God that saved the Israelites from Egyptian slavery called for Jesus to be hidden among them and called Him from their land.  This would be the God for all people and not just another local deity.  By His death, Jesus conquered death and corruption of the soul (sin).  After His death and resurrection, Jesus had all power on heaven and earth.  And He will return to judge the living and the dead having ultimate victory over ultimate evil.

At no time does Horus take on human flesh while maintaining his divinity.  Being detached from the supreme creator god, he was unable to do this.  In fact, he is depicted as half man and half falcon.  The problem of fallen humanity is that by sin we have distanced ourselves from the God who made us in His image and likeness.  This distancing has corrupts the human soul that was made to be immortal and leads to complete death.  In order to correct the corruption and defeat death, God would have to take a fully human form and still retain his divinity, die as a man and because of his divinity, rise from the grave as a man.  A half man and half bird god could not do this despite being born of a virgin, performing miracles, or calling himself the light of the world.  And how could Horus call himself a supreme light when he was only the god of the rising sun?  Aten succeded Ra as the sun god.  Atum was the god of the setting sun and was the local god of Lower Egypt.  In contrast, Jesus became man and was like us in every way except he was pure from His conception of a virgin and the Holy Spirit.  He overcame the temptations.  He was crucified publicly so that there would be no question that He died.  But, because Jesus was also divine, death could not hold His human body.  By believing in the Gospel and following His precepts, we have the ability to overcome sins and live forever.  As attributed to Athanasius (who was described by his enemies as a black dwarf), “God became man so that man could become God.”

Athanasius the Great, Bishop of Alexandria

Egyptians saw the truth of Jesus and rejected their pantheon of gods despite the persecutions of the first 300 years of the faith.  Egypt was the home of the Desert Fathers who lived in caves and monasteries to devote their lives to prayer and the pursuit of God without the worldly influences after the faith became legalized and (eventually) the official religion of the Roman Empire.  The spirituality of these fathers were an influence of the African bishop Athanasius who was the hero of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea and compiled 27 books that would be canonized as the New Testament at a Council in Carthage.  Today, the indigenous Coptic Christians of Egypt still hold true to the faith even under the threat of martyrdom.  Not only they, but Ethiopians, Syrians, Assyrians, Antiochians, and others would rather confess Jesus as the risen Son of God rather than any other god of any other nation.

Rather than seeking to find excuses to reject Christianity all together, I recommend that African-Americans (no, all Americans!) take the time to learn about ancient Christianity.  The Copts and Ethiopians (who were evangelized by the Apostle Matthew) have practiced this faith long before the slave ship captain John Hardy Hawkins chose his coat of arms.  Greek and Russian Orthodox believers pray the prayers of St. Macarius and kiss the icon of St. Mary of Egypt.  This is not to say that the Orthodox Christian world is perfect.  But, we have a greater spiritual journey to offer than Horus.  A good starting point would be On The Incarnation by St. Athanasius the Great. He also wrote a biography of St. Anthony who is considered to be the father of Christian monasticism.  The Sayings of the Desert Fathers offers a good look and what the early Egyptian and other influential monastics taught.  Two modern books that highlight early African Christianity that are useful are The Unbroken Circle and Wade in the River.

Cyprian vs. Complacency

“… Only observe a discipline uncorrupted and chastened in the virtues of religion.”   Saint Cyprian of Carthage

Bishop Cyprian led an African church in a time of great crisis.  First, there was a period of brutal persecutions from the Roman government.  He was criticized for going into hiding rather than stepping forward to become a martyr as many in his parish did.  Then, he had to argue with false teachers who wanted to close the doors of repentance to backsliders who wanted to come back to the faith.  A plague arose in the land and killed believers and pagans alike.  This shook the faith of many Christians who thought they and their families would be spared from such suffering.  After a period of relative calm, another persecution arose in which Cyprian would face the executioner’s axe.  In the midst of these difficulties, the saint encouraged a friend to practice a sober minded and pure path as a Christian.

It is easy for us to dismiss the need for such a walk of faith in this day and age.  Many of us succumb to the idea of “Getting our praise on” Sunday mornings, or as we listen to our favorite Gospel songs on the radio.  We sweep our sins under a rug since, “The Lord knows our hearts,” and didn’t mean to sin.  If a brother or sister of the faith (or even minister) dare give us a mild rebuke of our faults, they are not to “judge” us because “all have sinned.”  As long as we go to church, tithe, and love others; a disciplined spiritual life doesn’t seem to be necessary.

I believe that the Christian life called for by St. Cyprian is even more critical to us today than it was in first century Carthage.  To proclaim Christ before Constantine was an invitation to exile, torture, or death.  The courageous either hid and found ways to encourage people to remain faithful to Christ, or they boldly faced swords and wild beast.  A life of purity and sobriety gave our ancestors of the faith the strength and wisdom to do both.

Bishop Cyprian of Carthage

Today, Satan persecutes us with a more vicious torturer than any Roman official could send on us.  Complacency lulls our spirits to believe that we are walking in the narrow path of salvation when we are actually on a broad boulevard of destruction.  When we relegate worship to exuberant praise, can we hear the quiet voice that God uses to speak to us as he did Elijah?  How can we parts of the body of Christ heal from our sin sickness if we are unwilling to confess where the body is gathered?  Are we so holy that we cannot accept a word of correction from those who have made the journey before us and are walking with us?  “Oh, those are the traditions of men.  We don’t need to do all of that. God is not through with me yet.”  Instead of finding answers in prayer, the Bible, and ancient Christian writings to correct our backslidings, it is easier to make excuses for improper actions, words, and (especially) thoughts.  And since we do not face life threatening persecutions, being complacent in our Christian walk has captured far too many of us and misleading us to be no better than those who do not practice the faith at all.  Indeed, we are worse because we, supposedly, know better.

Not everyone is called to monasticism.  But, we are all called to spend time with ourselves and God in prayer as Jesus did.  All of us are called to observe times of God’s presence in our lives as the apostles did in the book of Acts.  The writings of early church fathers and mothers are available and are not hard for us to comprehend.  And the call to repentance given by our Lord back then is essential to our self-denial, taking up of our crosses, and following Him today.  Let us not be lulled by complacency in these times of ease.  But, let us struggle all the more against our sinister enemy who wants nothing more than for us to let our guards down.