Saint George and the Dragon Age: Hic Sunt Dracones

CS Lewis

C.S. Lewis, famous for ‘The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe’, stated in one of his non-fictional works,  ‘Mere Christianity’,

‘The moment you wake up, all your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists in listening to that other voice, that point of view, letting that other stronger, quieter life come flowing in.’

In other words, our path toward being fully human involves a recognition each day that we are not the centre of the universe. The trouble is we live in a culture that tells us that we are and that we should always get what we want. We are all consumers now relating to everything in terms of consumption – not just shopping, but education, health care, and religion. But being a consumer is not the height of what it means to be human.

animal-1861504_1280I am reminded of this on Saint George’s Day – 23rd April – the day dedicated to the patron saint of England.  We probably know the story about the knightly George and the dragon. But what do we know about the real George?

All we know is that George, or Georgios, was born around 270 BCE, probably in Cappadocia (now Eastern Turkey), not England. At the age of 17 he entered the service of the Emperor Diocletian as a Roman soldier.

Diocletian was for most of his reign tolerant of religious minorities, but around the turn of the century public opinion blamed the refusal of Christians to participate in pagan sacrifices for a series of unfavourable events and omens, and the Emperor ordered all Christians to conform to the Roman sacrificial system or else lose their positions. Those opposed to Christianity pressed for punishment, and an Oracle from Apollo at Didyma was widely interpreted as calling for the suppression of Christians. So on 24th February 303 BCE Diocletian’s ‘Edict against the Christians’ was published. A spate of persecutions followed, and many Christians died including George the Roman soldier and Christian martyr.

The Roman historian Eusebius, writing twenty years later, spoke of a soldier who was executed on 23rd April 303 BCE for this act. George was identified with Eusebius’s soldier, which is why Saint George is remembered on 23rd April to this day.

There are numerous theories of why Saint George is depicted with a dragon in Christian iconography. One theory suggests that the Roman soldier, George, refused to kneel before an image of a dragon or a serpent – possibly on a Roman Standard – and that this is where the story of ‘Saint George and the Dragon’ originates.

But even stories possess truth and allow us to explore the truth within ourselves. C.S. Lewis knew this, exploring the truth of his Christian faith through ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ as much as he did through any of his theological writings or radio broadcasts. Lewis’s friend J.R.R.Tolkien held to a similar principle in his writings that revolved around his famous trilogy ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
Role playing games such as ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ and digital versions such as ‘Dragon Age’ have built upon these stories and developed them for our own age. All of them in some ways look back to earlier stories such as ‘Saint George and the Dragon’. And in that story George had to face a question. Was he the centre of his own universe or was their something more worth defending? A dragon that needed defeating? The real George faced the dragon by refusing to renounce his Christian faith.

George would probably have remained a saint principally revered in the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Asia had it not been for the Crusades. The crusaders journeys introduced them to the icons of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and they were impressed by the depictions of the courageous soldier-saint slaying a dragon and rescuing a damsel in distress.

They simply did not understand how the symbolism of iconography works, and that George’s dragon stood for evil, or perhaps Diocletian, and the beautiful princess for Christianity, or the Blessed Virgin Mary, or for the Church itself. Not knowing how to interpret what they saw, they produced their own interpretations.

Sadly, this expressed itself in the crusades with acts of violence under the guise of ‘knightly valour’ and today Saint George is hijacked by extreme English nationalistic tendencies in some quarters. If only they knew who the real George, or Giorgios, was.

But if we can strip away the layers of legend we are still left with a little pinch of truth. George, the Christian who stood up to something terrifying and was able to do so not because he thought he was at the centre of the universe but because he knew he was not. Realising we are not the centre of the universe is a good thing as the history of map making can illustrate to us.

map-595790_1920.png500 years ago people believed the Earth was flat. We know this from the history of making maps. Anyone who has been a scout knows not only that Saint George is their patron saint but something about map reading and map making.

If you go to an archive and look at any maps from 500 years ago you will see that maps of Europe were fine, but the further away from Europe they got, the less accurate they became. In uncharted places a Latin phrase can often be found:

‘Hic Sunt Dracones’ or ‘Here be dragons.’

So in the history of map making, dragons represented the fear of the unknown. As we know it took explorers to go into the unknown and to face these fears. That is why we have accurate maps today. To me, Saint George’s Day is about facing fear – facing the dragon. For the real Saint George it mean’t facing the fear of being persecuted for what he believed in as a Christian.

What might facing the dragon look like in our own age?

george-and-the-dragon-2406524_1920

‘Hic Sunt Dracones.’

We will all encounter these words, and not just on historical maps. Remembering the real Saint George may help us face those words wherever we may encounter them. I remember a hymn I used to sing at school, ‘When a Knight won his Spurs’, which in one of the verses says the following:

“Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed

‘gainst the dragons of anger, the ogres of greed;

and let me set free, with the sword of my youth,

from the castle of darkness the power of the truth.”

Living these words where ‘there be dragons’ lies the path to true chivalry.

Digital Reformation 2.0

back to the future_Fotor

What will the Church of the future look like? In the face of continuous change this question is becoming evermore prominent to those churches that do not wish to have their backs to the future. In an insightful article by Carey Nieuwhof in ‘ChristianWeek’, Carey writes of a ‘seismic shift’ taking place today that is parallel to the conversion of the pagan Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity in the fourth century, or the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century.

The latter had a direct influence on the Reformation of the Christian Church in Europe which it is commonly agreed, began on 31st October 1517 when the German monk and theologian, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. The theses were a response to the then practice of selling ‘indulgences’ to absolve sins. Luther propounded two central beliefs in his theses: that the Bible is central to Christian religious authority and that human beings may reach salvation by their faith alone and not by their deeds. It is arguable that Luther would easily have disappeared into history and the Reformation never have begun without the invention of printing to quickly disseminate his ideas.

Although the original Reformation is now consigned to history the Christian Church could be on the cusp of a ‘digital’ Reformation 2.0. This is not due to any malpractices within the Church but simply because of the revolutionary development of information technology since the arrival of the internet.  Carey does not himself make this claim but some of what he says in his article ’10 predictions about the future Church and shifting attendance patterns’ does imply this.  For example Carey’s second prediction says this:

“…many individual congregations and some entire denominations won’t make it. The difference will be between those who cling to the mission and those who cling to the model. When the car was invented, it quickly took over from the horse and buggy. Horse and buggy manufacturers were relegated to boutique status and many went under, but human transportation actually exploded. Suddenly average people could travel at a level they never could before. The mission is travel. The model is a buggy, or car, or motorcycle, or jet. Look at the changes in the publishing, music and even photography industry in the last few years. See a trend? The mission is reading. It’s music. It’s photography. The model always shifts….moving from things like 8 tracks, cassettes and CDs to MP3s and now streaming audio and video. Companies that show innovation around the mission (Apple, Samsung) will always beat companies that remain devoted to the method (Kodak). Churches need to stay focused on the mission (leading people into a growing relationship with Jesus) and be exceptionally innovative in our model.”

Anyone who is familiar with the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible will know how much the model of the apostles’ faith had to change in order to engage with the missionary journey they were led to undertake through God’s Holy Spirit. If they never had changed the model, the journey would never have begun and Christianity would probably have disappeared as a sect of Judaism within the first few centuries, if not decades, of the death of Jesus.

Today, as the internet matures and becomes part of our ‘normal’ experience it is becoming increasingly evident that a seismic shift is happening within our human cultures, particularly in relation to communication.

  • What are the implications for the Christian ‘kerygma’, or proclamation of the Gospel?
  • What are the models that need to change, or be ‘reformed’, within the Christian Church in order for the kerygma to resonate with today’s generation?
  • Dare the Christian Church change or reform them for a generation that have been taught within our education systems to expect to interact with the information they are provided?
  • Dare we not?

Say “No” to going to Church

roundstonecross

“I do not go to church”.

That is what I am encouraging my church congregations to say. I think saying this can be a great act of witness in today’s world. And when people say it I would encourage them to say it with great conviction!

Now before you start sending in your messages of complaint let me say the following. I am encouraging church members to say, “I do not go to church.  I am the church.”

If that sounds strange to you it would not have sounded strange to St. Paul or any of the New Testament writers in the Bible.  When Paul wrote his letters to the church in Corinth or Ephesus, he was not addressing a building, he was addressing a group of Christians in that town or city.

In the New Testament the word for ‘church’ always mean’t a group of Christians gathered together, never a building to go to. One of the primary reasons for this was that Christians formed part of a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire until the adoption of the Christian religion by the state under the Emperor Constantine (272-337AD).

“So what?” You may be wondering. Personally I think it makes all the difference in the world for Christians today to see themselves as the church rather than as a building they occasionally visit, just as you would occasionally visit a shop or a club.  Being a Christian is a 24/7 existence but that understanding to some degree was eroded when the message of Christianity became absorbed into the mentality of ‘Christendom’ – the idea that everyone shared the same world view as citizens within a Christian state.

In our age of the global community that world view continues to be deeply challenged within the traditional institutional church denominations, all born of Christendom. The challenge is now so acute that the only reasonable starting point to talk of a Church of the future is to begin by acknowledging its existence within a post-Christendom environment. But what will the Church of the future look like?

When Jesus called his disciples to follow him he called them into a way of life. “Follow me”, Jesus says and the earliest Christians reinforced this message by describing what they did together as “The Way.” (Acts 9:2) This metaphor provides a potent reminder that Christianity is fundamentally about movement and always has been.

Christians should see themselves as disciples of Christ, ‘learners for Life’, rather than as consumers of a pre-packaged religion with various spiritual products available from a static church building near you.

So, please do not go to church, instead be the church wherever you are.

Alone or together, in a church building or not, every day of the year.

For that is the Church that will have a future…

Go with the Flow

cyberdummiessigned

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s investigations of “optimal experience” have revealed that what makes an experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness called ‘flow’During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life. Flow is more than happiness, it is a deep connectivity, a oneness – dare I say a ‘communion’. People may experience flow through work or religion, but they may also seek it through the creative arts, sport – or more destructively through alcohol, drugs, or the darker side of the internet.

Flow cannot govern our institutions, including the institutions of the Christian Church founded since the age of the Roman Emperor Constantine, but without the element of flow what are we left with? And is that one of the reasons that people in this country continue to leave the traditional, institutional Christian churches in their droves? Traditional Christianity is failing to ‘go with the flow’ perhaps?

All our traditional Christian denominations were born of the age of Constantine and the Roman Empire, and the institutions which shaped that empire have shaped our collective consciousness which we can call in short, ‘Christendom’. This is a worldview that places every individual and system of governance within a Christian framework. But Christendom is no more. I believe a key challenge for Christian churches in this country is to define what they are in a post-Christendom age. Can we turn back the clock and bring back the unity of Christendom, if indeed it ever was united, or should we be seeking something else?

Thankfully we do have a vision of the Christian Church that existed before the age of Christendom, it’s in the Bible and charts the life of the Early Church centuries before Christendom began. We also have a way of life that was first given to us by Jesus himself, not Christendom but the Kingdom of God. The Christianity I would like to see in the 21st century is one that seeks to live the Kingdom of God inclusive of a generation that yearns to go with the flow.

Where does that leave our institutional practices in all our Christian churches born of Christendom? I do not know but I am willing to find out from the itinerant preacher from Nazareth who still says, “Follow me.” Maybe that is how I choose to go with the flow.

How about you?