“We must have no bogus history.”
Austin Farrer, the great Anglican theologian, drew a line in the sand for Christians living in our post/modern era. We can’t erase, hide, or ignore history. Our #cancelled and #metoo and #woke friends won’t let us get away with it. In the good old days, we could hide the disciplina arcani—the Orthodox truths handed over to new converts when they were first baptized—from outsiders. Not anymore. Fr Tom Hopko used to remark with his customary aplomb, “The toothpaste is out of the tube.” Anybody with a laptop and a Google Chrome browser can discover nearly anything about anyone at any time. Some of the search results will be wrong. But some of them will be correct. We cannot hide behind ignorance.
If we’re going to canonize heroes as genuine heroes, we must see them as they really are. The famously ugly Oliver Cromwell once sat for a portrait. The artist, Samuel Cooper, wanted to airbrush some of his many blemishes. Cromwell, good honest Calvinist that he was, protesteth vigorously. Paint me as I really am. Warts and all. The #cancelled generation doesn’t want pious un-truths that impart moral lessons, even if they are earnestly taught. Just tell us the unblemished truth and let us sort it out. Warts and all.
The best thing that ever happened to G.K. Chesterton was that he was not canonized as a saint. People give two reasons why. But one reason is better than the other. First, he was intemperate, yea verily, corpulent. Meh. You must do better than that. If the fat friar Thomas Aquinas can be a saint, the heft and girth of Chesterton is no obvious impairment to sainthood.
The more serious charge is that Chesterton made many unguarded anti-Semitic statements. He once wrote that no one born a Jew could truly be a good Englishman. Any Jew living in England should be dressed as an Arab so we could identify him as a Jew. When I first read The New Jerusalem, I was horrified. Is this really the G.K. Chesterton I know and love, the famous defender of the Christian faith? (Was Chesterton being ironic and I’m being obtuse? You read The New Jerusalem and you tell me.)
But now that we suspect G.K. Chesterton harbored a nasty streak of anti-Semitism, where does that leave us fans and devotees? It leaves us exactly where we were before. We can critically assess G.K. Chesterton—or Flannery O’Connor or C.S. Lewis for that matter—as a creature of his culture and time and proceed to enjoy his Father Brown stories and his theological books. Only this time we are sadder and wiser.
Orthodox heroes don’t get a free pass either. Who could but admire the sheer chutzpah of Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens when the Nazi occupants threatened to execute him by firing squad for protecting Jews? Damaskinos showed up in the commandant’s office, rope in hand, and replied: “Greek religious leaders are not shot, they are hanged. I request that you respect this custom.” Chutzpah indeed.
Then there is St Nikolaj Velimirović. We don’t deny his piety or his staunch Orthodoxy. But if we’re going to remember him honestly on May 3, his feast day, we surely must remember Adolf Hitler decorated him with a medal. We surely must remember his Words to the Serbian People Through the Prison Window:
“Europe knows nothing other than what Jews serve up as knowledge. It believes nothing other than what Jews order it to believe. It knows the value of nothing until Jews impose their own measure of values […] all modern ideas including democracy, and strikes, and socialism, and atheism, and religious tolerance, and pacifism, and global revolution, and capitalism, and communism are the inventions of Jews, or rather their father, the Devil.”
Lord, have mercy. Let us not be guilty of special pleading just because Velimirović is a saint. Tell the truth.
History is not a statue, a plaque, or a monument. History is memory. If our parents and teachers don’t tell us the truth about the past, our children will never learn what kind of people we are and where we can from. We can no longer give a “get out of jail free card” to hallowed figures like Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Robert E. Lee, or Margaret Sanger. But now that we see them without their halos, we have a chance to evaluate them all truthfully. When we see their statues in a public park—minus the halo, minus the hagiography—we now have a chance at a reasonably fair assessment of them. Keep the statues or not. But contextualize Robert E. Lee and Christopher Columbus. Above all, tell the truth.
The well-meaning but untruthful stories of Parson Weems and Washington Irving did untold harm to American children. No, George Washington did not throw a silver dollar across the Potomac. No, Columbus did not think the world was flat. If St Thomas Aquinas knew the world was a sphere in the 12th century (Summa Theologica I, Q.1, Art.1), everybody knew it. When hagiography unravels, a cloud of suspicion starts to cover everything. If you’re not telling me the truth here, where else are you lying to me? What else are you dissembling? What are you leaving out?
The issue is even more critical intra-mural—inside the walls of the church. If we don’t acknowledge our sometimes-painful history, the whole picture of the Christian faith starts to look dodgy. Tell the truth, warts and all.
In our empiricist age, we must surely take to heart N.T. Wright’s paraphrase of Festus’ declaration to St Paul. “You have appealed to history? To history you must go.” If we claim we live by history—why else would a Roman lackey like Pontius Pilate be embedded in the Nicene Creed—we also can be soundly defeated by history. We will be found false witnesses for God. We need not be positivists or historicists. We’re not trying to erect our faith on a foundation of intellectual certitudes. But we must have no bogus history either.
 For example, as described in Byford, Jovan. (2004). From “Traitor” to “Saint”: Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović in Serbian Public Memory. For a fascinating history of Yugoslavia, I heartily recommend Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, published in 1941. Alan Jacobs argued it might be the most important book written in the 20th century. West met Velimirović a couple of times. She calls him “the most remarkable man she had ever met, not because he was wise or good, for I have still no idea he is either, but because he was the supreme magician.” She thought maybe he could speak to “gods and men and beasts.”
John Stamps is happily married and gainfully employed as a Senior Technical Writer at Guidewire Software in the Silicon Valley. He earned a BA in Greek from Abilene Christian University, an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, and then ignominiously dropped out of his STM program at Yale University Divinity School.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.