The Historian as Storyteller, Worldbuilder, and Maker of Meaning

A few years ago, I stumbled across a podcast on the Ancient Faith network called Paradise and Utopia. I don’t remember what it was exactly that intrigued me, though I’m sure there were several things. I started listening to it on long drives. I remember particularly how I listened as I was driving my two kids (before #3 had showed up) to pick up some raw honey at a honey farm.

history as worldbuilding

The sun was at its wintry brightest over a landscape that was still lightly dusted with snow. Then it performed an act of gorgeousness by shining through a tree branch as it set. At that exact moment, Fr. John started to talk about how Christianity is essentially a cosmos-affirming religion. Not one that consigns the created world to the realm of the demons, the unclean, or the undesirable.

I knew this, of course. But in that moment ,hearing it that way in that place, it affected me and reaffirmed my desire to do my part to transform the world through culture.

Not incidentally, Ivan Ilyin speaks about the need for world-affirmation in his book Foundations of Christian Culture:

The world must be accepted as created by God and having received from God its own meaning and its own calling, which is encapsulated in the incarnation that sanctified not man alone, but through man, all of creation. The meaning of this is expressed by these phrases: “I have overcome the world” John 16:33) And therefore “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” (Matthew 28:18) and “All things have been delivered to Me by My Father.” (Matthew 11:27) And the calling of the world is as follows: “that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He may gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him.” (Ephesians 1:10)

This is the purpose and the justification for Christian culture.

So when I found out that Fr John was making his podcast into a series of books, I was thrilled. And when I was asked to actually edit the book before publication, I might have done a happy dance.

Ever since publication day for The Age of Paradise, I’ve been trying to arrange a live interview with Fr. John on Facebook. But for weeks we tried without success as various demons (technological and otherwise) seemed to make it the work of their existence to stop it from happening in the first place. But finally persistence won the day. And we met and talked online.

I have to say, this conversation moved me in ways I did not expect. Fr. John is a generous and kind spirit who is supremely intelligent and yet gently pastoral. I’m sure you will agree with me when you hear our conversation, where we discussed questions such as these:

  • What is the difference between paradise and utopia, and why should we care about that difference?
  • Why is the oppressive church structure such a trope in modern popular culture?
  • How can a knowledge of our past help us address the cultural issues of the present?
  • How does the work of the historian intersect with the work of the novelist?

All of this, and more. Enjoy:

Or, if you prefer to listen only, here is the audio file of our conversation:

If you were moved, as I was, by Fr. John’s insights, please be sure to purchase his wonderful book The Age of ParadiseYou might also enjoy Ivan Ilyin’s Foundations of Christian Culture , especially when you see the interesting parallels between his thoughts and those of Fr. John.


  1. As far as the fiction trend of oppresive church structures: i have to sympathize . Someome much more clever than me coined a term of what occurs in America is ‘Churchianity’ not Christisnity. These walmart-sized mega churches centered around shameful, juridically based structures. The damage it causes to the human person is impossible to explain. I live in a community that is flush with hardline, literalist born-agains. It took me many years to separate them from what it is to be a Christian and take the plunge into Orthodoxy. I come from a busted Roman Catholic experience, personally, and spent the last 27 years or so furious with the Institution, it’s failed encounters with priests in this system. . So I laughed at ‘cradle Orthodox privilege’ in a healthy way.

    It was the ‘fiction’ of Dostoyevsky that led me to squint down at this wonderful thing that the world hates so much it formulated a ‘Revolution’ to kill it back in Red October. That the West, I suspect, would very much like to see eradicated. Yet it beautifully persists. The past year and half has been a wonderful coming back to life for myself. Finding Life.
    Thanks for sharing these dialogues that ring so true to the moments I am experiencing

    1. I am so glad you’re finding it useful. And I’m sorry that you had to go through that kind of Churchianity. I’ve run from it all my life, but I always had somewhere to run TO.

      1. Thank you. I’m ok with those experiences I suppose? At the time I had what I thought were very clever arguments against the church, it’s dogmas and mysteries. Though never atheist I was very anti-Christian. After a series of very intense personal disasters that almost cost me my family, my children, I was gifted with sets of Providence that began a new, salvivic road.

        This led to the ‘Ontological flooding’ of my life, discovering ancestral roots and patterns, some lost family histories, dreams and guidance that dropped me at the doorstep of the Serbian Orthodox Church I would then be baptized in April of 2019.

        I share that because a lot of the breadcrumbs through the forest of my own pride were laid by blogs and podcasts like this (and Fr. Stephen Freeman’s brilliant work) that pushed me further into prayer, meditation, etc. it also led to *experiences* that felt like a homecoming to the Realm, making this universe officially ‘one-story’ to borrow from Fr. Freeman.

        You said something in one of the podcasts I’ll paraphrase because I stink at quotations ‘the Saints live in that liminal space close to Faerie, so of course they will see dragons in the wilderness’

        I wanted to do a backflip to that statement. There is just so much to unpack from that one thought that could inform an entire life with beauty and suddenly, the universe is very crowded. Which I feel is what people yearn for, as you said, we are creatures of symbol and story. We want there to be a domoviy behind the stove, a Saint that is also half Zmaj (Russians say Zmei?)

        That the RC are trying to Protestantize their Hagiographies is…appalling to me. Killing Dream. Killing the soul. In making things ‘more real’ they end up creating straw men and straw women with no stories. Nothing to inspire our hearts or wonderment. It firmly slams that second story addition onto the world, and denies access to everyone who isn’t mad or taking entheogens. Which effectively makes you apostate in search for experiences of the hyper-real.

        My own Slava/patron Saint is S. Cyprian of Antioch. I can literally lay my baptism at his feet. Now. Of course I know he ‘didn’t historically exist’. But only a fool would take that mean he ‘isn’t real’. In a dream he dropped me off by bus at the church I would be baptized in, which started me going there. Seems pretty friggin real to me.

        That’s a lot. And I apologize. But man, there just so much to talk about with this stuff!

        God Bless

  2. Dn. Nicholas,
    Thank you so much for doing this interview! I think about many of these issues often but sometimes struggle to articulate answers or suggestions to friends and acquaintances about how “retelling” or “recouping” history can heal and transform our current experience in the world. This interview was very helpful. In listening to “Search the Scriptures” on Ancient Faith Dr. Jeannie has talked about “Dueteronomistic” history and how important it is in understanding the history of the old testament. I think this conversation makes the same case for understanding history, not in terms of having the old covenant as a lens through which we understand and make sense of the world but the cross. Fr. John Behr makes this case in “The Mystery of Christ”.

    Fr. John Strickland’s work and your work are so important! Thank you to you both for it! I really appreciated “The Song of the Sirin”. My wife had you sign it for me at the Ancient Faith Podcasting conference.

  3. Fr. John Strickland was instrumental in several ways in my conversion to Orthodoxy, and by extension my household’s. Coming from a Reformed background I began, as I was very eager to share my faith and studied Protestant apologetics in depth, to hear critiques of Sola Scriptura and at the same time I was getting my feet uncomfortably wet in textual criticism which was also undermining SS. I realized the need for an authority outside the Scripture long story short. But what was most confusing about Orthodoxy early on was Ancestral Sin versus Original Sin. So, I started reading Fr Romanides, and re-reading several times, and then just thinking about how death could have adequate explanatory power to explain human depravity. Now I see it very, very clearly – but Fr Strickland added the historical elements I didn’t have. So thankful to so many!

    God bless!

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