In the last couple weeks, I've been reading some of Tertullian's moral treatises on the bus to and from my Honours Specialist course for Latin. He's been a bracing companion on this bus ride just as I'm sure he was a bracing conversation partner at the time (that would be an understatement!). What I like about him is that, while he is thoughtful and forceful, he really doesn't get into abstractions, but, rather, grounds his thought on what impact does our faith has on our Christian practice in the world. He is, of course, a rigourist and sometimes goes off the rails (especially towards the end of his career), but all too often he asks precisely the right questions.
One of his strengths is confronting the culture. Most of us, insofar as we know about him, know his comment "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem" (I think that is in the De praesciptione haereticorum). That question, I think, is one that we need to keep asking ourself because, at the end of the day, we have to challenge the culture around us and recognize that, however comfortable we are in our secular culture, we are called to a faith and practice which is, more frequently than we might like, at odds with people around us. That means we should be asking questions about what practices and customs we see around us and whether they are consistent with what Christ has taught us.
Take, for instance, his De spectaculis. In this treatise, Tertullian takes a look at the great mass spectacles of his day: theatre, chariot racing, and gladiatorial combats. What Tertullian was reacting to was Christians who believed that they can attend these spectacles without being tainted by the pagan rituals or immoral behavior which one found in these events. Tertullian, predictably, unloads on them. All of these spectacles, he argues, are saturated with idolotry which we Christians are called to flee. All of these spectacles are characterized by immorality that we should not witness, much less participate in. There isn't much give in Tertullian and, here, he is at his rigourous best. It sounds like he was right, but that was then and this is now. What do gladiatorial combats have to do with us now?
I remember asking myself that when I first read the De spectaculis in a graduate course I took on gladiators in the late nineties. While I concede the idolotry implicit in ancient spectacles is no longer, I wonder, to what degree, we are facing a more subtle idolotry: the idolotry of money which drives today's entertainment industry to such a degree that moral considerations are no longer worth talking about. I find Tertullian is asking the questions I think we all need to ask about entertainment today. What does the 'virtual' violence we experience in TV, movies and video games doing to our call to be peace-makers and to turn the other cheek? Is the sexual innuendo and content on TV something that we as Christians should consider harmless, swept by the tide of permissiveness in our society? Where do our Christian beliefs come in when we choose our entertainment options?
Tertullian, at the end of the day, was a rigourist and his solutions tended towards a nearly complete separation from the secular culture of his day. I'm not sure we need to go so far, but I do think we need a little bit of his discernment and challenging attitude to the culture we find around us. What does Hollywood have to do with Jerusalem? What does the secular university have to do with the Church? What does New Age have to do with Christians? The answers to these questions are not rarely simple, but I believe that, as Christians, we need to pose them with the same force and conviction that Tertullian showed so many centuries ago.