The Surprising Wisdom of John Chrysostom

While investigating John Chrysostom for quotes about the role of women, I came across many accusations of misogyny in his writing. It’s been hard to track down the source of many of the quotes, but I was surprised to find the context of one. Amongst other gems I’m having difficult times finding, one was, “The beauty of woman is the greatest snare.” Look at Chrysostom – blaming women for the sins of men! Women get blamed for our very existence!

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Of course, those quick to dismiss the Christian faith as anti-women have pulled this quote out of context. From his Homily 15 on the Priesthood:

The beauty of woman is the greatest snare. Or rather, not the beauty of woman, but unchastened gazing! For we should not accuse the objects, but ourselves, and our own carelessness. Nor should we say, Let there be no women, but Let there be no adulteries. We should not say, Let there be no beauty, but Let there be no fornication. We should not say, Let there be no belly, but let there be no gluttony; for the belly makes not the gluttony, but our negligence. We should not say, that it is because of eating and drinking that all these evils exist; for it is not because of this, but because of our carelessness and insatiableness.

While at first seeming to blame women (perhaps utilizing a rhetorical device to snare his patriarchal listeners), he immediately chastises this view. Against the misogynists, he argues “we should not accuse the objects, but ourselves,” firmly planting responsibility on the part of men to treat women well instead of as sexual objects.

Not all of Chrysostom’s quotes are nearly so helpful. It is not my intent to defend all the Church Fathers against claims of misogyny, which some of them no doubt possessed. I believe that it was primarily their cultural context which influenced their dismissive views of women and not the teachings of Christ, who let Mary learn at his feet, who was anointed by a woman, and who revealed his resurrected body to women first. Not to mention the emphasis of Paul that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” and his regular example of lifting up female deacons and apostles.

It doesn’t help that critics are so quick to take others out of context. Again, an example from Chrysostom. A website named Rejection of Pascals Wager paints him as a crude hater of women, summarizing:

To help believers overcome the temptation of women, Chrysostom devised the following description: “The whole of her body is nothing less than phlegm, blood, bile, rheum and the fluid of digested food … If you consider what is stored up behind those lovely eyes, the angle of the nose, the mouth and the cheeks you will agree that the well-proportioned body is only a whitened sepulchre.”

Again, a fuller context. This is a letter to Theodore, who has recently fallen away from the faith. In the middle of a lengthy exhortation, we come to this:

I know that you are now admiring the grace of Hermione, and you judge that there is nothing in the world to be compared to her comeliness;

He’s not saying this in the vacuum of thinking about women or beauty in general, but rather to a specific man who is lovestruck by a particular woman, not simply for her attributes but for her beauty. He then proceeds to note how much more important for us to pursue God, to seek for beautiful souls:

but if you choose, O friend, you shall yourself exceed her in comeliness and gracefulness, as much as golden statues surpass those which are made of clay. For if beauty, when it occurs in the body, so fascinates and excites the minds of most men, when the soul is refulgent with it what can match beauty and grace of this kind?

It’s in this context, arguing that we pursue inner beauty which surpasses earthly beauty, that he says:

For the groundwork of this corporeal beauty is nothing else but phlegm, and blood, and humor, and bile, and the fluid of masticated food. For by these things both eyes and cheeks, and all the other features, are supplied with moisture; and if they do not receive that moisture, daily skin becoming unduly withered, and the eyes sunken, the whole grace of the countenance immediately vanishes; so that if you consider what is stored up inside those beautiful eyes, and that straight nose, and the mouth and the cheeks, you will affirm the well-shaped body to be nothing else than a whited sepulchre; the parts within are full of so much uncleanness.

Would I have put it quite so strongly? Probably not. But do I think he’s right that someday all earthly beauty will pass away? Yes. Just look at every beautiful actress when she turns 75. He then goes a bit more extreme:

Moreover when you see a rag with any of these things on it, such as phlegm, or spittle you cannot bear to touch it with even the tips of your fingers, nay you cannot even endure looking at it; and yet are you in a flutter of excitement about the storehouses and depositories of these things?

This sort of anti-body rhetoric smacks of the Platonism that I think the bodily resurrection of Jesus challenges. But his point again is to question the value of worshipping (of being in a “flutter of excitement”) bodily beauty when there is another form of superior beauty to be pursued:

But your beauty was not of this kind, but excelled it as heaven is superior to earth; or rather it was much better and more brilliant than this. For no one has anywhere seen a soul by itself, stripped of the body; but yet even so I will endeavour to present to you the beauty of this soul from another source. I mean from the case of the greater powers. Hear at least how the beauty of these struck the man greatly beloved; for wishing to set forth their beauty and being unable to find a body of the same character, he had recourse to metallic substances, and he was not satisfied even with these, but took the brilliancy of lightning for his illustration. Daniel 10:6 Now if those powers, even when they did not disclose their essential nature pure and bare, but only in a very dim and shadowy way, nevertheless shone so brightly, what must naturally be their appearance, when set free from every veil? Now we ought to form some such image of the beauty of the soulFor they shall be, we read equal unto the angels.Luke 20:36 Now in the case of bodies the lighter and finer kinds, and those which have retreated to the path which tend towards the incorporeal, are very much better and more wonderful than the others. The sky at least is more beautiful than the earth, and fire than water, and the stars than precious stones; and we admire the rainbow far more than violets and roses, and all other flowers which are upon the earth. 

All in all, Chrysostom fares surprisingly well when put in context. I’m still searching for the source of The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager’s other quote: “It does not profit a man to marry. For what is a woman but an enemy of friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a domestic danger, delectable mischief, a fault in nature, painted with beautiful colors?”

But until I find it, I have to say – Chrysostom has been full of some surprising wisdom thus far. Far from being a misogynist, he actually keeps pushing for an outwardly-focused society to look toward inner, higher beauty.

Lust & the Like

So I recently wrote an article on female masturbation, in response to a blog post that’s been linked as the best of her.meneutics, Christianity Today’s blog for women. My basic premise was that Christians need to stop pretending that women only masturbate because they want to “fill a void” or have “attachment issues.” The root of the problem – something many Christians feel weirdly uncomfortable acknowledging – is that women lust for sex just like men do. (Though on a spectrum, they may lust less on average.)

There have been many bizarre responses, which I feel weirdly compelled to detail here, even though they make it painfully clear that many of them haven’t read the article at all:

1. This article smacks of patriarchy. I specifically criticized the traditional accounts of female masturbation because I think they are patriarchal and downplay women’s agency in sex. See quote below:

The doublespeak here—that women are supposed to be simultaneously sexually adventurous, available, and willing yet without possessing lust themselves—is an impossible contradiction to embody. It treats sex as a man’s playing field, reinforcing the notion that women should cater to men’s desires without possessing similar desires of their own.

To fully address female masturbation, we don’t need more psychoanalysis about sex that implicitly negates female sexuality. We need a biblical approach that recognizes both the immense pleasure of the female orgasm and the inherent goodness of sexual desire while reserving its proper place for within marriage.

2. What century is this? The 1800s? No, if it were the 1800s I’d be saying:

Some young women actually anticipate the wedding night ordeal with curiosity and pleasure! Beware such an attitude! A selfish and sensual husband can easily take advantage of such a bride. One cardinal rule of marriage should never be forgotten: GIVE LITTLE, GIVE SELDOM, AND ABOVE ALL, GIVE GRUDGINGLY. Otherwise what could have been a proper marriage could become an orgy of sexual lust.

That’s a real quote, from a Victorian marriage guide, written in 1894 by Ruth Smythers. It’s very clear my article is written from a 21st century perspective, drawing from the wisdom of the ancients as well, instead of being completely oblivious to anything before 50 years ago.

Of course, we can simply assume that something is false because it’s old, right? In the end, this is little more than chronological snobbery. People don’t study history and so they assume that whatever is present or current is good, right, and true. Anything from before 1969 is clearly regressive and antiquated and false. Nevermind that attitudes toward sex have varied throughout the ages, especially in cities and the upper classes. Buy let’s just ignore those pesky historical facts!

3. It’s inappropriate to talk about such things in a magazine. Guess what. Everybody’s doing it and nobody’s talking about it. It’s because there is such stigma around this topic that the pastoral responses have been so unhelpful. Because no women are talking about it, every woman who struggles thinks she’s weird or on sexual overdrive or something. So we need to talk about it, and we seemingly can’t talk about it in person due to stigma. A magazine is a good way to resolve this tension.

4. My personal favorite: where is the Bible in all of this? Without getting into the sin of Onan, there actually was a Bible quote in the article. But it was subtle – “to stir up and awaken love before it pleases.” I quoted the Bible like Jesus quotes the Bible – without giving book, chapter, and verse. But you have to be knowledgable to track these more subtle clues… I won’t comment on what this says about the average commenter.

5. Masturbation can be performed without lust. I actually agree with this point; it’s possible to get off without lusting after a particular person. But I don’t think that’s a very common case, so it didn’t seem worth getting into arguments about it. I do worry about what it means when we start using a sexual act intended to be used in communion with another for purposes like our personal stress relief or soporific intents. I don’t have time to get as far into this, but I’ll write about it more later. I just don’t think this is a serious possibility for most people, and that lust is the more common problem.

6. Masturbation is perfectly fine. What’s your problem? This has not been the traditional opinion in the church, and some people I know and respect (Richard Beck, for example), hold the unorthodox position. The purpose of the article was not to make the case for why masturbation is wrong. It was an argument about a pastoral approach to a problem – once we agree something is wrong, how do we treat it? Most pastoral approaches I’ve seen in sermons have been significantly misguided, which is why I wanted to write this. I’ll present a longer argument on another day.

7. My favorite response from my boyfriend: Reading the comments on your article made me feel like this:

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Big Life Changes & A Job Opening

The news has been out for a little while, but I think it’s worth explaining here. After much prayer and petition, I decided to leave my position at The Veritas Forum effective in May. I love the mission of Veritas, and I don’t think there’s any other ministry doing quite what they do. But I realized that my life goal is to be on the speaking side of Veritas and not the planning side, and that I need to take the proper steps to get there.

The first step is to go back to school. I know a good amount about the Bible for someone who has only been Christian 5 years, but it’s not nearly enough to start teaching about it. I’m hoping to eventually do a PhD, but that will require learning the Biblical languages – Greek and Hebrew – which means I need to go to seminary or divinity school.

Before I do that, I want to be able to afford it. A couple years ago, my pastor very helpfully gave some of us copies of David Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover, which explores how people get into and can get out of debt. A lot of people go deep into debt to pay for school. If I were going to law school or medical school, I think my end salary could justify this because I could pay off the loan in a reasonable length of time. This isn’t the case for graduate degrees in the humanities. I know I’ll have much more peace of mind and flexibility if I save up the money before I go to school. As for scholarships – it’s possible that I could get a scholarship, but they’re harder to get for masters degree programs. Even if I got a scholarship, it wouldn’t be a full-ride, which means I need to save up.

It’ll be much easier to save up if I’m living at home, so I’m moving back to Irvine. I love my parents dearly and we get along well, so I’m looking forward to making this transition. Cambridge rent is sky-high, so I’ll effectively be saving $10,000 a year by making this switch alone. (That’s more than 1/4 of the total tuition right there if I go to Fuller.) As for my actual job, I’ll be doing tutoring in Irvine. If anyone is looking for a tutor, I can do high school English, history, and SATs, or middle school and below in all disciplines. I’m also cooking up a innovative idea for SAT tutoring that I’ll probably announce in the nearish future.

In the meantime, if you‘re looking for a great company to work for and have mad project management skills, I’d strongly suggest looking at the positions open at The Veritas Forum. Check them out at: http://veritas.org/about/jobs/

We’re currently looking for a Northeast Regional Director and a Southwest Regional Director.

Poor vs. Poor in Spirit

I was doing a Bible study last month in which we went through the Beatitudes together. One of the questions that came up was the fact that Luke says “Blessed are the poor” whereas Matthew says “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” So which is it? Are all the poor blessed or just those who are spiritually impoverished or what?
So I started poking around and found a wonderful resource answering this question from Hans Kvalbein: http://s3.amazonaws.com/tgc-documents/journal-issues/12.3_Kvalbein.pdf

He does such a good job explaining that I’m not going to even attempt a summary but will just share key highlights: 

“The beatitudes of Luke are not in the third person [they], but in the second person plural [you all]. His beatitudes are directed to ‘you poor,’ to a specific group Jesus has in front of him. The context leaves no doubt as to whom Jesus is speaking: ‘Looking at his disciples, he said…’ (v. 20). The message of Jesus according to Luke is not that everybody who is poor is blessed, but that the disciples, in spite of their bad condition now, are blessed because they are receivers of the kingdom of God.”
The beatitudes seem to be drawing from a particular passage in Isaiah 61, which is “a promise to the ‘poor,’ the ‘brokenhearted,’ the ‘captives,’ the ‘prisoners'; it is a word of comfort to ‘all who mourn’ and ‘those who grieve in Zion.’ …When we look at the content and the wider context of Isaiah 61 it is evident that the promise refers to Israel as a whole. It does not refer to a limited group of the economically poor within the people, nor does it refer to all the poor and destitute in the world.” (Note well, here, that Christians consider ourselves to be in the lineage of Israel, that is that the Israelites were the “people of God” under the Old covenant and Christians have been “grafted into” this family tree (cf. Romans 11).  This would mean that the promises to the poor/afflicted of Israel apply to the poor/afflicted in the church.)
“The meaning of the word ‘poor’ here is not the economically poor, destitute, or needy… ‘Poor’ here means ‘helpless’, dependent on others, unable to pay back. The recipients are in this word indeed described as beggars. But the word does not refer to their economic or social status. The tax collectors, the fishermen, and the farmers in the fellowship around Jesus were certainly no beggars and could hardly be called ‘poor’ in a material or social sense of the word. They were able to sustain themselves by their own work. But they were beggars before God. They were dependent on his grace as it was proclaimed and demonstrated in the preaching and person of Jesus. The word is used in a transferred sense and describes the fundamental position of man before God.
One of Martin Luther’s last words was this: ‘We are beggars, that is true.’ As far as I know, Luther had never been a beggar in the literal sense of the word. But he had learnt both from Scripture and life that we are dependent on God, we are beggars before him. The gospel is the message that God gives his gift, his kingdom, to beggars, into empty hands. We have nothing with which to pay him back.”

Jesus, John, and the Intimacy of Physical Touch

I forgot to cross-link this here sooner because of the holidays. But I have a post I rather like over at Spiritual Friendship. A teaser:

It’s precisely the dearth of this physical intimacy within normal friendships that makes celibacy in the modern world so difficult. Man was made with a need for physical intimacy, but in our rather touch-phobic society, it’s difficult to meet that need outside of a romantic relationship…

If the church can express that sort of chaste love for all its members, then our deepest human desires can serve not simply to tempt us but to help us cleave all the more closely to the church. If Jesus let John share his bosom, then it seems we have a more than sufficient precedent to do the same.

Read the rest here: http://spiritualfriendship.org/2013/12/21/jesus-john-and-the-intimacy-of-physical-touch/

Spurgeon on Science

I’m working on a project right now and came across a beautiful quote that I love dearly. I’m afraid it’s not suitable for the project, but it’s desperately worth keeping somewhere. Perhaps I shall turn this blog into a commonplace book.

From Charles Spurgeon:

Two sorts of people have wrought great mischief, and yet they are neither of them worth being considered as judges in the matter: they are both of them disqualified. It is essential than an umpire should know both sides of a question, and neither of these is thus instructed. The first is the irreligious scientist. What does he know about religion? What can he know? He is out of court when the question is—Does science agree with religion? Obviously he who would answer this query must know both of the two things in the question. The second is a better man, but capable of still more mischief. I mean the unscientific Christian, who will trouble his head about reconciling the Bible with science. He had better leave it alone, and not begin his tinkering trade. The mistake made by such men has been that in trying to solve a difficulty, they have either twisted the Bible, or contorted science. The solution has soon been seen to be erroneous, and then we hear the cry that Scripture has been defeated. Not at all; not at all. It is only a vain gloss upon it which has been removed. Here is a good brother who writes a tremendous book, to prove that the six days of creation represent six great geological periods; and he shows how the geological strata, and the organisms thereof, follow very much in the order of the Genesis story of creation. It may be so, or it may be not so; but if anybody should before long show that the strata do not lie in any such order, what would be my reply? I should say that the Bible never taught that they did. The Bible said, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” That leaves any length of time for your fire-ages and your ice-periods, and all that, before the establishment of the present age of man.1 Then we reach the six days in which the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and rested on the seventh day. There is nothing said about long ages of time, but, on the contrary, “the evening and the morning were the first day”, and “the evening and the morning were the second day”; and so on. I do not here lay down any theory, but simply say that if our friend’s great book is all fudge, the Bible is not responsible for it. It is true that his theory has an appearance of support from the parallelism which he makes out between the organic life of the ages and that of the seven days; but this may be accounted for from the fact that God usually follows a certain order whether he works in long periods or short ones. I do not know, and I do not care, much about the question; but I want to say that, if you smash up an explanation you must not imagine that you have damaged the Scriptural truth which seemed to require the explanation: you have only burned the wooden palisades with which well-meaning men thought to protect an impregnable fort which needed no such defence. For the most part, we had better leave a difficulty where it is, rather than make another difficulty by our theory. Why make a second hole in the kettle, to mend the first? Especially when the first hole is not there at all, and needs no mending. Believe everything in science which is proved: it will not come to much. You need not fear that your faith will be over-burdened. And then believe everything which is clearly in the Word of God, whether it is proved by outside evidence or not. No proof is needed when God speaks. If he hath said it, this is evidence enough.

 

Why Intelligent People Are Less Likely to Be Religious

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I have a new article featured on Christianity Today, expanding on the thoughts I published for Fare Forward:

My story is almost always met with surprise: How could an atheist convert to Christianity at Harvard, the bastion of secular intellectual elitism?

Now this reaction has some empirical justification. A recent meta-analysis of studies on religion and intelligence found that yes, overall, people with high IQs and test scores are less likely to be religious. Researchers analyzed 63 studies on religion and intelligence from the past 80 years with differing results to discover the slightly negative correlation between the two.

Unlike previous studies that tried to explain the data by suggesting that smart people simply see past religion’s claims, these researchers, led by University of Rochester psychologist Miron Zuckerman, tried to identify other social factors in play. Nevertheless, the hype about their conclusions is overblown, and all of us—the religious and the non-religious—should be wary of placing too much weight on their findings.

Read why at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/august-web-only/brains-and-belief-arent-mutually-exclusive.html