This month we consider the topic of education as it applies to popular culture. By popular culture, we mean the media, venues for entertainment, pieces of literature, cinema, articles of clothing, and particular arts that resonate with the likings of contemporary people in certain times and in certain places. The truth of the matter is that we in America, whether we wish to be so or not, are enveloped in a popular culture that exalts materialism and is permeated by less than wholesome imagery.
Consequently, a natural two-fold question for the concerned Orthodox Christian arises: "What is the attitude of our Orthodox Church regarding popular culture, and is there ever a potential to view popular culture as one among many sources for our spiritual edification?" The answer to this question has been consistent throughout the centuries, and is perhaps best expressed by the fourth century advice of St. Basil when he speaks directly to the question of the popular literature of his day in his classic treatise "For the Young on How They Might Derive Profit From Hellenic Literature":
We should model ourselves on the bees when we participate in these works. They don't go to all the flowers indiscriminately. And when they do fly to certain ones, they don't try to carry them off whole. They take only what is useful for their work and leave the rest without a backward glance. In the same way, we, if we are wise, will gather what suits our needs and conforms to the truth, and pass over the rest ...
Following this sage advice, we would be wise not to embrace every single work of popular literature willy-nilly, nor to take the opposite extreme by condemning popular culture outright, but rather to approach popular culture and its products as St. Basil advises, with careful scrutiny, examination, and, to use a popular expression, "common sense." St. Basil's admonition can be applied rather well to the current hype that is buzzing around "The Da Vinci Code" and the "Gospel of Judas" these days. He was mindful, as we should be mindful, that the time which God has given us on this earth is precious. Consequently, we should pay heed with what we choose to preoccupy ourselves and our time.
We would be wise to recognize that these works mentioned above constitute the current vogue of our times. If something is said to be "in vogue," it is inherently understood that it is a passing fancy; that while it has now achieved popular sensation in its proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, it will inevitably eclipse into the twilight, only to be replaced by something more likeable later on as tastes and interests change. Such is the ebb and flow of popular culture.
On the one hand, the heavy attention paid by our popular culture to these voguish works reflects the sad reality that our contemporary society is fast approaching a near total theological and historical illiteracy. On the other hand, despite the grave theological illiteracy of our era, very few would dispute that people in our present time are thirsty for the truth, for substantive knowledge, for an authentic relationship with God. They are seeking the "living water" much like the Samaritan woman to whom Jesus revealed His messianic divinity, saying, "Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water than I shall give him will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life." (John 4:14).
As Greek Orthodox Christians who live within the popular culture of America, we stand in a unique position to offer to others a balanced perspective that authentically reflects the truth offered by Jesus Christ; and we are called by Him to share the truth of His Gospel to others, who thirst for meaning. This brief piece has endeavored to explain the attitude of our Orthodox Church towards popular culture, the challenges associated with discerning its positive and negative characteristics, and the need to view products of popular culture with heightened scrutiny, as St. Basil was advocating in his times. In this way, popular culture and its works can, at times, have the potential to serve as one of many venues for reconsidering a relationship with God.
It is my hope that this brief reflection on an important topic may shed some additional light upon the culture in which we live, and emphasize our obligation as Orthodox Christians to share the light of Jesus Christ with others. May His perfect peace be with you always, may His Gospel of Truth and love shine in your hearts, and may you continue to grow stronger in His knowledge and grace.
Archbishop of America