St. Augustine: How to Best Engage with Secular Culture

Another week, another story about how Harry Potter books are being publicly burned by Christians. This time, the group in question included African tribal masks as well as some other objects in their bonfire. So at least it wasn’t only books. Never mind that it was in Poland, and the Polish, more than most, should remember how much the Nazis liked to burn books.

I’m actually not trying to start an angry discussion in the comment section. (Even if that’s what it looks like). Many of you will know that plenty of Orthodox would applaud the Catholic priest mentioned above. Rather than get into the question of whether or not your children should be allowed to read Harry Potter, I’m taking a different approach. What if there was an accessible Patristic approach to secular culture that could work in a variety of situations?

Actually, there is. And it provides us who wish to help create Christian culture with some useful ground rules for both consumption and creation of non-religious culture.

Saint Augustine’s On Christian Teaching 



One of St. Augustine’s lesser-known works is a wonderful short book titled On Christian Teaching. It is a handbook for Christians who would like to become saints. Most of it is focused on how to read the Scriptures productively and throughout one’s life. But St. Augustine, being an erudite man, considers many aspects of a Christian’s life, including, thankfully, how a Christian should engage with pagan culture.

You might be surprised at how “liberal” he sounds:

We should not avoid music because of the associated pagan superstitions if there is a possibility of gleaning from it something of value for understanding holy scripture…We were not wrong to learn the alphabet just because they say the the god Mercury was its patron, nor should we avoid justice and virtue just because they dedicated temples to justice and virtue…A true Christian should realize that truth belongs to the Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature.

This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who pays attention to how the Holy Fathers relate to pagan culture. After all, in some churches even on Mount Athos, you can find frescoes of Plato (without a nimbus, naturally) in the narthex. It’s a position of respect given to a philosopher who recognized much of Christ’s truth, even before Christ’s coming.

Mentioning vs Teaching

St. Augustine gets even more specific and useful in his assessment:

To analyze the matter more closely–and it is something of the greatest importance–there are two kinds of learning pursed even in pagan society. One consists of things which have been instituted by humans, the other consists of things already developed, or divinely instituted, which have been observed by them.

He then goes on to talk about how superstitions are dangerous, because their entire purpose is to incline a person to either worship demons or worship nature. But one sentence in this long passage against the evils of superstition is interesting: “Something instituted by humans is superstitious if … it involves certain kinds of consultations or contracts about meaning arranged and ratified with demons, such as the enterprises involved in the art of magic, which poets tend to mention rather than to teach.”

This is important in the Harry Potter case, because it is clear that St. Augustine (as indeed any cultured, intelligent person) recognizes that to mention something is not the same as to actively teach it. In other words, even if the magic that is described in Hogwarts were possible in the real world (hint: it’s not, it’s fantasy), the mere fact of describing it, and reading that description, does not actually mean that the author is a Satanist, nor does it mean that if you read it you are subjecting yourself to demonic influence.

But wait, there’s more…

We must in turn consider those human institutions which are not superstitious…All things which are meaningful to humans just because humans have decided that they should be so are human institutions. Some of them are superfluous and self-indulgent, others are useful and necessary.

So, without further ado, I present:

St. Augustine’s Rules on How to Engage with Secular Culture

St. Augustine writes on this at length, so I will summarize his main points and use the Harry Potter example for reference.

1. Make sure there is no actual contract with the devil involved

Here he speaks explicitly of interacting with objects and texts that are supposed to give the practitioner power of the world around him. Things like amulets and books of spells. Harry Potter doesn’t fit, because it’s fiction, not a handbook of magic. And the magic described doesn’t actually involve invocation of demons.

2. Distinguish between what is superfluous and self-indulgent and what is useful and necessary

This is extremely important, and also very difficult. Many might say that Harry Potter and fantasy fiction at large are self-indulgent by their very nature. But insofar as they are a kind of fairy tale, Tolkien certainly would argue for their importance. As would I.

3. If a pagan or secular writer says something true, its truth is not invalidated by the fact that he or she is pagan/secular.

Another good rule, except in the Harry Potter example it doesn’t really fit, because Rowlings is a professed Christian, although  of a somewhat liberal and haphazard stripe, it is true. But she’s not a pagan, Satanist, or militant atheist. Still, this rule is generally a very important one, and one that some people tend to forget.

4. Mine the gold in secular culture, but put it back to the service of Christ

Can fantasy be used in the service of Christ? I believe so, and I argue for it in on my author website. I won’t add to it here, except to say that there have been very conservative and pious Orthodox people who have tried (somewhat successfully) to do this with Harry Potter.

5. “In all these subjects, the watchword must be ‘nothing in excess’ “

This is one that all of us forget far too often. And it can be applied to both sides of the Harry Potter debate.

6. Never forget that no matter how useful pagan/secular knowledge is, it pales when compared to the knowledge contained in divine scripture

That is something that I believe none of us consider enough. Everything we culture creators do should ultimately help lead others to the study of scripture. If we believe in that Light that is so Lovely, we should never forget that the clearest source of it already exists. It’s called Scripture. St. Augustine, no matter how much he valued the beauty found in some pagan culture, always calls himself and his readers back to the one thing needful.

I hope that the conversations that come about as a result of this blog will go a long way to make this step easier when considering cultural and pop-cultural phenomena, both in specific manifestations and at large.


  1. I have a friend who is studying the actual practice of occult magic in the modern literature and theater of the twentieth century. It’s a thing, and it’s nothing remotely like Harry Potter. Think Yeats and company, and even the oddest inkling, Charles Williams. The latter is probably the most insidious example, because he’s considered a Christian author!

    1. Great point, especially about Charles Williams. I’ve read a few of his novels, and I’ve always been struck by how “off” they were. Something dark and unsettling underneath.

      1. Yep. Creepy dude. Got wrapped up in the Order of the Golden Dawn and all sorts of ‘sex magic’ with his virginal assistants.

        But, on the other hand, some of his writing on marriage comes pretty close to an Orthodox understanding of the sacrament (i.e. that the husband and wife must be Christ to one another and see Christ within each other). Just goes to show that God speaks through even the strangest mouths! 🙂

  2. Even Rowling confessed in a MTV interview that the books were Christian allegory. I’m suspicious of her Christology obviously if you’ve seen the movies/read the books, but Christian imagery is everywhere.

    What can be gleaned from Pagans: longing, and the failure of their gods, the deception of demons. Whether Plato or Aristotle are immortalized somehow, I don’t much care, Saint Paul says the wisdom of this world is foolishness, but he finds true statements misascribed to the gods. Almost all of the OT is a corrective to the Pagan/Gentile attribution of God to gods. The gods are real, but they are created so they, were never to be worshipped or given credit for God’s creative work, for His loving Providence, etc. Read Deut 32 in the LXX. God gave the nations over to the “sons of God”, these rulers fell Psalm 82, people falsely ascribed God to these fallen “gods” and their minds were darkened. This is one reason all Orthodox Christians should reject the popular notion that the OT Prophets were basically polytheists and this gets tidied up during the exile. No, the gods are actually real, the OT Prophets are not polytheists, they are calling people to worship and loyalty to God, not a god, to the Uncreated, not the fallen created.

    So, if this is the Biblical story line, and it most definitely is (all you have to do is look at Paul’s table of nations), then we see the analogical link between Paganism’s hopes and the fulfillment, and correction of their thinking, in Christ.

    This explains why there is so much similarilty between religions, they all have a common source – they, the sources of information about God or gods / come from the non-terrestrial realm (God and angels communicated the Law, the Prophets had one on one encounter with the Logos same with the Apostles) where they all shared residence at one time. The demons and Satan are not original, the religions of the world who have their basis in the teaching of demons (same with Christian heresy), share similarity with Christianity in large part because they share a common source. The demonic realm is not creative, they are copy cats with inversions. On top of this the Image of God in people is like always pulling us. Demons take credit that is due to God and try to accumulate it to themselves through fear while inverting and making chaos of the intentions God had for creation- and they use story lines with similarity and analogs to the Christian message because that’s what they know. Demons know God, they know the narrative that they have twisted into false meta-narratives, heresy and false religion.

    People do “feel their way toward God” (Acts 17:27) and God has in former times overlooked their ignorance (though Paul also links idol worship to demonology). Meaning, before the re-gathering of the disinherited nations at Babel, which starts in the Gospels and into Acts and all of Paul’s efforts, God did not demand loyalty from those peoples, but now, that the period of alien occupation was coming to an end, the ruler of this world being cast out, the Gospel going forth – the announcement of God’s rightful ownership to the entire Earth where Satan has been prince – the peoples outside the covenant, those aliens of the promises, are now called to report, to repent – because Messiah’s coming has set in motion a clock winding down to judgment. So, again, what would we make of their work, achievements? It should be acknowledged at the least, that their minds had been darkened, that the religious orientation of a person determines their worldview, and so regardless of what they approach, musings on life, science, whatever – their is a darkening that is tethered to their works. This is why we sing hymns regularly to Saints who attacked idolatry, to so and so for delivering us from the delusion of idols, to Christ himself. This is why we say, “we have seen the true light”, why we pray the prayer of Simeon “a light to lighten the Gentiles”.

    To appreciate Pagans or other religions as perfectly compatible, or as equals, or even as really close but not quite – as so many do with Plato/Aristotle – is nonsense. We anathematize heretics who believe in Jesus, why would we do less with those who do not have Christ at all? So we keep their books, and we can find ways of seeing the story of the world by inferior analogy – and how Christ actually fulfills the desire of the heart. We use it for contrast. I think part of the fascination with other religions recently by Christian syncretists is partly due to the fact that we seem to have more in common with them than with materialists so we are more comfy with a New Age person who prays to Jesus on Mondays and Budhha on Tuesday – or we tolerate heresy in simlar way. But if you just back up, remember the story, who is behind heresy and false religion – it’s not just human imagination, it’s demonic. This is why people get exorcised before baptism.

    So, we should read this things, or at least they should not be off limits, because they present us with the content of what was overcome, solved, initiated, overlooked but now not overlooked, etc. It should help us appreciate being a Christian all the more and it should help us realize that even though most of the world is not polytheistic anymore, Satan has just switched strategies – and that the people we encounter without Christ are in no better position that heretics and Pagans – we should not assume we’re basically compatible – they need rescued from the gods just as much as anyone else – and any appreciation we have for elements in our culture that are not sanctified, music, movies, whatever – should keep the Pagan story in mind, that God calls everyone to repend because the countdown was initiated with the Resurrection.

    Sorry to make this so long.

    1. So much good stuff here! Excellent points about the gods being real, and about the longing of paganism being something positive. It’s present in Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings and is an excellent reminder that we are but pilgrims on this earth.

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