1. Very interesting idea here – something I had always intuitively felt, but never expressed. It is related to an architectural matter I recently spoke of in my talk at the Climacus Conference: the perpetually ‘exotic’ quality of Orthodox architecture. There seems to have always been a tendency for Orthodox churches to be a bit fantastical – from 6th-century Byzantine architecture, which takes Roman forms but ornaments them in architectural carving derived from Persia, to 16th-century Russian churches, which are adorned with exotic and orientalist features like onion cupolas. I suggested in my talk that a certain amount of fantasy is iconic in liturgical art, because it shows us that the Church is not of this world – churches are different from our routine buildings. I feel similarly about the fantastical elements of hagiography – they show, poetically, that the saints lived in the Kingdom of God, outside of this world with its mundane rules, even whilst they were alive.

  2. Theodore Reznowski

    In a similar manner, Hilaire Belloc wrote in a collection of essays of his “First and Last” concerning the legends of St. Patrick:
    There was once–twenty or thirty years ago–a whole school
    of dunderheads who wondered whether St. Patrick ever existed, because
    the mass of legends surrounding his name troubled them. How on earth
    (one wonders) do such scholars consider their fellow-beings! Have they
    ever seen a crowd cheering a popular hero, or noticed the expression
    upon men’s faces when they spoke of some friend of striking power
    recently dead? A great growth of legends around a man is the very best
    proof you could have not only of his existence but of the fact that he
    was an origin and a beginning, and that things sprang from his will or
    his vision.

    1. Ah, Belloc! “Dunderheads,” indeed. You can always expect him to speak his mind.

  3. Katherine W.

    I’ve always loved Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories, but I never thought about its ideas in connection with hagiography. When I first moved into Orthodoxy (from a Protestant background), appreciating the more mythic qualities of saints’ lives was difficult for me. I wish I’d had your article then! Thanks for a great article!

    1. Thanks, Katherine, that’s gratifying to hear. It surprises me how many layers one can uncover in Tolkien’s writings. Truly a profound man.

  4. Baker Galloway

    Thank you for writing this, Nicholas. It reminds me of some underlying reasons why I love reading fiction so much.

    I believe Tolkien’s quotations apply to fictional fairy tales rather than biographies or hagiographies, right? It’s a bit of a stretch for me that you are using his arguments to justify the presence of fantasy in the Lives of the Saints. While part of the same tapestry of Holy Tradition, the Lives haven’t been vetted like Holy Scripture has. Nor were they produced by the same culture – the Jews were much better at memorizing and passing on oral tradition than gentile culture has ever been (with possible exception of you Waldorfians out there).

    There is this principle that we shouldn’t lie to our children. Like, if you teach your kids to believe in the big red man Santa Claus who comes down the chimney cookie-eating and gift-giving. When they find out it’s not true, then what else were you lying about? Maybe this whole Jesus story is just a nice fairy tale – good literature but not actually worthy of founding my worldview upon. Holding your nose and closing your eyes to elements of Holy Tradition that you actually doubt just makes it that much easier for your kids to dismiss your religious credes as not being any more ‘real’ than their own emotional experiences and the findings of contemporary science.

    I think we need to be very open-eyed when relating fantastic stories to our children that the Church’s Tradition has handed down to us. I personally want to be honest with my children about my own doubts. If you try to convince yourself that you believe 100% of it, your kids will smell a rat. Why not be honest with them that you believe 98% of it?

    Thank God that this 100 years has seen much better hagiography than the preceding couple centuries. I personally feel that there are a number of Lives written with rose-colored glasses in such a manner that it sets forth not an ‘ideal’ for contemporary Christians to aspire to, but rather an ‘impossible ideal’ that was never quite accurate. My generation has a thirst for grittiness, for vulnerability, for uncertainty. The Church needs to go there. Just saying’

    I will say though that I have a much higher tolerance for fantastical elements in visual representations (i.e. icons) than I do in the written word. Maybe I am hypocritical in that, but the world of metaphor and analogy, poetry and fantasy seem more accessible to the visual realm. Maybe it’s because you always know that there is illusion going on in visual art – line and color indicating forms that are arranged to indicate meaning – whereas in the written word we are accustomed to entering a mode of supposing objective ‘facts.’

    What do you think?

  5. Thanks for the comment!

    I think you answered your own question. On the face of it, I really don’t see why we should have more tolerance for the abstract in visual art, but not in the written word. Maybe it has something to do with this society putting too much stock in what is written as “true.” My first two posts on the Lives deal more with “what is truth,” by the way, but I do think it would be useful for people to wean themselves off from an idea that “if it’s written, it should be true,” especially if “true” means historically accurate. It’s missing the point, frankly. I think the travesty that modern mass media has become only proves that while we would like to think that the written word is “factual,” it actually if far from it. It certain isn’t true all the time.

    As for the Scriptures being “vetted,” that’s actually not quite the case. The Scriptures were never vetted. There was the gradual formation of a canon, but it only confirmed the truth of Scriptures as they were revealed. There was no committee deciding what to keep in Scriptures and what not to. That’s not how the Church works. Put very roughly, the truth is the truth because it’s the truth, not because the Church decides it’s the truth. Fr. George Florovsky describes this much better than I ever can in “The Lost Scriptural Mind.” Highly recommended reading.

    By the same token, the use of the Lives in the services is about as solid a confirmation of their worth as you can get. The theology of the Orthodox Church is primarily liturgical, let’s not forget. If it’s in the services, it’s been “vetted,” so to speak (sorry, I seem to have contradicted myself 🙂

    I agree that recent hagiography is more palatable to the modern ear. However, let’s not become dismissive of the past’s way of dealing with reality, rose colored glasses or not. C.S. Lewis calls it “chronological snobbery, the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” The Church doesn’t do “current and hip,” it does “timeless and traditional.” That’s a good thing!

    As for expressing doubts to your children, that’s a pastoral issue. I wouldn’t comment on that except to say that I personally think we need to worry less about our kids “smelling rats” and more about giving them a worldview that allows for mystery and sacrament, without the incorrect notion that everything can be explained rationally, especially when it simply can’t.

    Just my thoughts. Thanks again!

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