Canon and Catechesis

There are a number of discussions these days about the Biblical canon, about the way it was formed, about the different canons of various communities of faith, and so on. One of the more interesting questions is: What is the function of canon? That is, people wonder what exactly is a list of books supposed to accomplish. The simple answer is that canon is a function of catechesis.

Think about it. When we speak (or spoke, as the case may be) of the canon of great literature in school, the context of such a list of great works of literature was specifically didactic. A true familiarity with the great works of literature was not simply an expected hurdle of the academy, but was actually training in both the recognition and production of good writing, as well as the passing on of a cultural patrimony, the treasures of the past, to a new generation.

The Biblical canons work the same way. Their context lies in maintaining a list of books considered by teaching authorities as canonical, that is, adhering to the Rule of Faith. In the past in both Christian and Jewish communities, during the number of centuries before doctrines and practices were truly settled, the canons within both were also in flux. As the Rule of Faith changed and came to more perfect delineation in each, so also the canons were adjusted to reflect this. This would explain why at one point some books appeared to be Scripture, while later they were classed as apocryphal, or merely good reading if they were lucky.

The above idea is something that I’ll be looking into more deeply, but it came from realizing that a number of those works which list the books of the canon do so in the context of instruction in proper faith (catechesis is the strictest sense), and some explicitly mention that fact, for instance, Athanasius of Alexandria in his famous Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter. Unfortunately, the beginning of that letter is lost, as is the context for various of the lists preserved only by Eusebius in his systematizing survey in the Ecclesiastical History.

Anyhow, more on that some other time, in more detail.

Many-colored Sepulchres

I will cut to the chase: this post is on the engagement of a Christian with what passes for art in contemporary culture.

Much ink has been spilled, or pixels arranged, over the Harry Potter books, to begin with. I admit that I read all of them, and enjoyed them, although progressively less as the series continued to develop. By the end, it was merely a matter of reading to “find out what happens.” Throughout their publication, aside from the general worldwide mania, the scores of translations, the betting on plot developments, the development into motion pictures, and all manner of merchandising, there have been consistent voices among Christians, either praising the books for their Christian subtext, or denouncing them for their superficial secularism and making witchcraft “cool” to kids. Both approaches were quite misguided, I believe.

To begin with the pro-Potter Christian perspective, one can only say that the efforts seemed rather desparate. Though Ms Rowling may be a Christian–quite the progressive one, it seems–her books are certainly not Christian. No one really argues with that. It is in the manner of certain thematic or narrative devices that the pro-Potter Christians center their praise for the books. Yet, I will be blunt. The appropriation of Christian themes of sacrifice and redemption, very, very real things to a Christian, are appropriated by an author as devices to be utilized in a plot narrative in an entirely fictional world. This in itself is a cheapening, a gutter-slumming of the great work of God for the world, which appropriates rather blatantly those themes. Yet there is a greater wretchedness at work in this.

What happens when your children no longer are able to recognize that sacrifice, redemption, and selfless love belong outside the pages of fiction? When they open their Bibles, and read of the work of God throughout the ages in history, real work in the lives of many real people of real nations, will they not be subconsciously reading fiction? “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” It works both ways, you know, that training. If you train up your child to think that redemption is a fictional plot device, well, then, there you go–time to be fitted for a necktie in the pattern “millstone.” In that sense, the anti-Potter side wasn’t attentive enough, as it only decried the superficial inanities, while leaving the misappropriations of salvation history alone.

Now we are confronted with the motion picture serialization of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series of books, a motion picture which appears to be beautifully well-done, with some very well-known actors and fantastic special effects. This is a man who bears a visceral hatred for Christianity, and kills God in the third of his books. Granted, so as to ensure the movie will be viewed by more than Pullman’s fellow-travellers on the militant atheistic road, the name of the big, bad organization is changed from “The Church” to “The Magisterium.” Hollywood, clueless as ever in matters of fact, thought that would make things more palatable to the American public, ignorant (or are they?) of the fact that “magisterium” is the name given to the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. They are completely within their rights to boycott. As would Jews be had they chosen “Rabbinate” or Muslims had they chosen “Ummah.” Of course, Roman Catholics calling for a boycott of the movie have earned the label “nitwits” from Pullman for their efforts. How progressive of him! How concerned for the welfare of the world, roughly 1/3 of which is Christian, and the vast majority of those Roman Catholic!

WIth these books, and this move, the mask is off. Hatred for God, for Christ, for the Christian Way, live with a burning passion in the author’s heart. There is no good that can come from any Christian poisoning their heart and mind with such things. Oh, you may think you’re immune to the dangers, and can discuss the misappropriation of Christian themes with the kids after they’ve seen the flying witches and the talking bears. But you fail in your Christian responsibility as a citizen of the Kingdom of God by allowing yourself and your children to partake of the ideas of and simultaneously enrich and encourage an antichrist, which this Pullman creature self-admittedly is.

Yes, yes, many will say, “Well, that’s a bit over the top. It’s just a book, just a movie.” No. It’s a symptom. It’s a symptom of a culture’s abandonment of its Christian roots, bit by bit, piece by piece, book by book, movie by movie, “art”work by “art”work. It is apostasy by half-turns and half-steps, a shy shuffle off the narrow and difficult Way onto the wide and well-paved road leading not to the Kingdom of God, but…elsewhere. “It’s easier walking, you know, and look how beautiful it is. Really well done. Everyone’s doing it…walking on this road…reading this book…seeing this movie.”

These things are not just whited sepulchres filled with putrefaction, but beatifully painted many-colored sepulchres, using the highest quality artistic talent the world has ever seen, and filled not just with putrefaction, but annihilation. And so the world slips inch by inch into an ever more chic darkness, with the cold and clear hatred and satisfaction of the prince thereof as its only company.

Κυριε ελεησον

Come, our Lord, come!