“The Dregs of the Last Christendom”

Doug Wilson has been doing a provocative series of posts on rebuilding Christendom in this secular age. Many of them are quite helpful, but occasionally I find myself wondering about the practical strategies that would flow from following Wilson’s principles as he states them in the posts. His most recent post, for instance, advocates rebuilding Christendom after we comprehensively address the foundational issues of which God is at the bottom of “Western values.” Here’s a comment I posted on that thread, asking what I think is an important question about strategy:

Pastor Wilson,

I’m curious – do you see “postmodern rot” as such a hugely influential error that it’s not possible to work with people (like Gingrich) who recognize something good – be it only “Western values” – without first comprehensively addressing foundational matters such as “Where did Western values come from, and who cares?”

That is an important question, granted, but when the whole house is burning down, is that the time to fuss with someone who’s trying to help put out the fire about where he got the water, and how he knows that water puts out fires in the first place? Questions like that are pretty academic at that point, don’t you think?

In the early Church, prior to Constantine, Christians could and did work with pagan Romans to uphold basic civic values and the pax Romana, despite the fact that those things were not explicitly grounded in Christian revelation and despite the fact that when pressed to the wall, the Romans decided they couldn’t put up with “another king, Jesus.”

Augustine is, of course, not Scripture, but I keep returning to the lessons of The City of God, one of which is that Christians can and should make use of any good thing the pagans recognize, especially the need for civic peace and virtue, to advance the cause of Christ.

Posted in Christianity in Modernity | Leave a comment

Rhetoric in the New Testament, Pt. 1 (What Is “Rhetoric”?)

The noted Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan has written of the fourth century Church Father Gregory of Nyssa:

[He] was conscious of the cultural differences between more cultivated and “more barbarian peoples”…For him, the supreme example of how the believer could properly benefit from pagan learning was Moses, who had, according to the Book of Acts, “‘received a paideia in all the sophia of the Egyptians,’ a powerful speaker and a man of action.” Therefore “the paideia of outsiders” was not to be shunned, but cultivated. What it imparted, moreover, as the text of Acts conceded, was not nonsense, despite its pagan origins, but an authentic sophia of some kind.[1]

The concern for “powerful speaking” is what was called “rhetoric” in Ancient times. In our day, the word “rhetoric” means colorful, but vacuous concatenations of words strung together to convey the false impression that something substantive is being said, or else merely to verbally abuse another person. For many of our Christian brothers throughout the centuries, however, the word “rhetoric” conveyed much more than that, for as an essential and in its own way “scientific” part of every educated person’s mental background, it was the very warp and woof in which they spun Christian doctrine, defended it against opponents, and sought to persuade others of the validity of the Faith. Accordingly, a good place to start our examination of the relationship of Christian culture and classical rhetoric is this fairly standard definition of the latter:

The English word “rhetoric” is derived from Greek rhetorike, which apparently came into use in the circle of Socrates in the fifth century and first appears in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, probably written about 385 B.C. but set dramatically a generation earlier. Rhetorike in Greek specifically denotes the civic art of public speaking as it developed in deliberative assemblies, law courts, and other formal occasions under constitutional government in the Greek cities, especially the Athenian democracy. As such, it is a specific cultural subset of the more general concept of the power of words and their potential to affect a situation in which they are used or received.[2]

Beginning in the fifth century B.C., we find the term “rhetoric” being applied to the verbal tactics of the itinerant pseudo-scholars in Greece known as the “Sophists.” Greece, particularly, Athens, was developing into a radical democracy, which among other things meant that its law courts came to be presided over by large groups of ordinary citizens (often numbering over 200) chosen by lot, and who functioned as both judge and jury. No professional discipline comparable to “lawyer” existed at this time, so both sides of a case were made directly by their respective parties. Because they were under strict time limits (trials had to be completed in one day) and were required to address such a large group of people, the litigants made their cases by means of formal speeches. The discipline of rhetoric entered this picture precisely because the effective use of words was seen to be essential to convincing the judge-jury of the rightness of one’s case.

But “rightness” was in this context not necessarily an absolute. The Sophists who traveled throughout Greece teaching rhetoric were not interested in establishing truth by means of effective speaking. Rather, they were interested in effective speaking for its own sake – that is, in using the rhetorical arts to persuade others of various positions regardless of whether those positions were true or false. This practice attracted criticism from the more philosophically-minded Greeks, which explains why some works of Plato and Aristotle viciously mock the Sophists and their understanding of rhetoric itself.[3]

According to Aristotle, the Sophistical use of rhetoric aimed to inculcate its students not with the tools to speak well (the “art” of rhetoric), but merely with the results of the Sophists themselves speaking well: that is, Sophistical rhetoric did not teach men how to craft their own words well, but only how to imitate the Sophists and thus trick others.[4] Aristotle contributed to the positive use of rhetoric by outlining its purpose as “an ability, in each [particular] case, to see the available means of persuasion.”[5] Aristotle’s concept of persuasion was grounded in three things: (1) the truth and logical validity of the position being argued (rhetorical logos), (2) the speaker’s ability to convince his audience that he can be trusted (rhetorical ethos), and (3) the speaker’s successful arousing of favorable emotions in his audience so that they not only intellectually agree with what has been argued but also wish to act on it (rhetorical pathos).[6]

Aristotle went on to provide one of the most cogent outlines of how rhetoric works to structure a speech and make it persuasive in the senses just mentioned. He accomplished this by first distinguishing three types of rhetoric.[7] First is deliberative rhetoric,[8] which concerns itself with persuading or dissuading an audience as to some position being debated. Second is judicial rhetoric,[9] which concerns itself with accusing or defending in the context of a court of law. Third is demonstrative (epideictic) rhetoric,[10] which concerns itself with moving its hearers to praise or blame. After extended discussion of these divisions of rhetoric, Aristotle turns to teaching how to structure a speech in each of these types of rhetoric and how to effectively deliver them both in oral speech and in writing (rhetorical lexis). This involves quite intricate discussions first of general principles of delivery, and second of the prior organization of what is to be delivered.[11]

The depth with which Aristotle treats all of these subjects shows that “rhetoric” for the ancient Greeks was a highly developed art form requiring a great deal of “scientific” knowledge, and not, as it has come to convey in our own shallow age, a mere bandying of colorful, but meaningless combinations of words. Rhetoric for Ancient authors was not a pejorative equivalent to the misuse of the similar Latin term propaganda (which literally means only “things to be propagated”, and does not on its face convey lack of value in what is being propagated).

Other Greek rhetoricians picked up where Aristotle had ended and began to compose a standard (canon) of the best authors of rhetoric, and this canon was made the curriculum in the formal schools. These schools trained up generations of eloquent speakers and writers who exercised tremendous influence on the politics, education, religion, and ethics of their society. Much space could be spent analyzing some of the great works produced by these men, both Greeks and Romans, but the reader is encouraged to spend some time looking at these works for himself.[12]


1. Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter With Hellenism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993), pg. 10.

2. George A. Kennedy, A New History of Classical Rhetoric (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994), pg. 3.

3. Plato’s dialogue Gorgias is an excellent treatment of the problems with the Sophists, and it is from this dialogue that a distinction between “rhetoric” and “sophistry” began first to emerge.

4. “On Sophistical Refutations” 1.1, in The Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 8: Aristotle I, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Inc., 1982), pg. 253.

5. On Rhetoric, trans. George A. Kennedy (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), pg. 36.

6. Ibid., pp. 37-39.

7. These types of rhetoric should be remembered, for they are very important for understanding all later uses of rhetoric, especially in the rhetorical masters that we Christians know as “the Church Fathers.”

8. On Rhetoric. pp. 52-78

9. Ibid., pp. 87-118

10. Ibid., pp. 78-87

11. Ibid. pp. 216-282.

12. See, for instance, the many orations of Demosthenes (Greek) and Cicero (Roman).

Posted in Biblical Interpretation, Christianity and Classical Culture, De Rhetorica | Leave a comment

Rhetoric in the New Testament (Introduction)

I’ve been thinking lately about the rhetoric of the New Testament. Rhetoric in its classical form is, I believe, a very much neglected discipline in our age of cheap soundbites and endless emotional manipulation via image-based advertisement. And yet, rhetoric was very much a part of the intellectual “air” that the writers of the New Testament breathed. That is not part of our intellectual “air” makes me wonder whether or not we are all that well-equipped to really understand a lot of what we read in the New Testament in more than a superficial “grammatical-literal” manner.

It is one thing to be able to read the Greek and to properly grammatically construe the participles and subjunctives and prepositional phrases and so forth so as to determine a bare-bones “face-value” and “literal” meaning of a New Testament text. But it is something else entirely to have real insight into the way that the writer’s mind worked, an insight born not just of the mastery of the technical details of grammar, but of a sympathetic grasp of the intellectual and cultural conditions that made his mind work the way it did.

With this in mind, I’m (hopefully soon) going to begin exploring the topic of how rhetoric was used by the Apostle Paul in his presentation of the Gospel to various audiences. Note well, please that I am billing the upcoming posts as “exploration,” not as some sort of “revelation from on high” from an expert-specialist trying to tell everyone else what to think. I’m far more interested in issues of how to think than of what to think, anyway. If this topic sounds like it would be of interest to you, stay tuned.

Posted in Biblical Interpretation, Biblical Meditations | Leave a comment

Darkness Over Here; Light Over There

I’m not going to make much of this right now, as I’ve only just begun reading the work, but W.K.C. Guthrie makes the intriguing point that “In contrast to the societies of the present day [its own day], [Greek society] had sprung at a bound from darkness into light.” [The Greeks and Their Gods (Boston, Beacon Press, 1955)]

He is speaking of the world of Homer, which is usually dated from 850-750 B.C. What intrigues me about this remark of Guthrie’s (and I admit I am using it in a different context than he was) is that this date range corresponds roughly to the date ranges usually given for the period from the ministry of Elisha to those of the Minor Prophets. Now the basic theme of all the Minor Prophets is the slide of God’s people into apostasy and the threat of coming judgment upon them. God’s people are rejecting the light that He has given them, and embracing darkness.

Here’s my proposal based on these facts: During the first few centuries of the Faith, Christians came slowly (somewhat reluctantly) to see the best of Greek culture as having prepared the way for the propagation of the Gospel throughout the world. Guthrie claims that Greek culture – the best of which began with Homer’s generation, particularly with Homer and Hesiod – basically sprang up out of darkness straight into light, and he says this was in marked contrast to societies contemporaneous with the Greeks.

Is it plausible to argue that while His chosen people slid into apostasy and a long captivity to the servants of false gods, God graciously shifted the center of His work with men to another people, the Greeks? Not in the sense of giving them direct, special revelation – that can’t be true since much of even the best of Greek thought is not amenable to Scripture – but in the sense of giving them a great deal of light that they went on to use to create most of the conditions necessary for the Gospel?

Think about it: according to Herodotus, Homer and Hesiod were primarily responsible for giving the Greeks the “classical” conception of their gods. Homer and Hesiod are pretty crass polytheists, yes, but it is in no small part because of them that Socrates undertook the birth of philosophy as a way to point the Greeks to the higher truths they were missing. Without Homer and Hesiod, no Socrates. Without Socrates, no philosophy. Without philosophy, no concern for a wisdom that transcends the mortal conditions of men. Without a concern for transcendent wisdom, no preparation for the Gospel.

On this sketch, then, the sudden “springing up” of Greek culture from darkness into (relative) light was an action of divine providence “making his sun to shine on the just and the unjust alike,” for “God is no respecter of persons.” On this sketch, God took a bunch of pagans and slowly – incompletely, but still significantly – raised them up as another way of chastising His wayward people. Almost as if He said, “Ok, you don’t like the special revelation I gave you; let’s see how you like what the heathens can do with the little bit of natural revelation I give them.”

As I said, I’m not going to make too much of this right now. It’s one of those things that would have to be fleshed out in great detail in order to make any kind of persuasive case. However, just as a sketch of a possible argument, this line of thought is provocative for anyone who doesn’t superficially reject the Greeks for their alleged “autonomy.”

Posted in Christianity and Classical Culture | 2 Comments

No Royal Road to Certainty

“The root of the matter is, that there is no royal road to certainty ; no organon for the summary extinction of doubts. As much in the sphere of religion, as in the social and political domains, infallibility and perfection are mere dreams of the imagination. Conviction of the truth does not become ours at the command of some external authority. It grows by contributions from many sources ; from the testimony of the past, from personal experience, from spiritual intuition, from conscientious following of the light, from the influences exercised on us by our fellow-men who are eminent for goodness. It never ceases to grow so long as we are faithful to what we have attained, and, though in this world it can never attain a logical completeness, the humble and patient will always find it sufficient for their practical need.” - Wilfred Ward, “William George Ward and the Oxford Movement”, The Quarterly Review, Vol. 169 – July & Oct. 1889, p 384.

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Christ and the “Corn-Kings”

Ancient pagan societies, unlike our own technological one, were fundamentally rooted in the regular, repeating rhythms of the natural world. Most of the life of Ancient men and women who were not wealthy was spent cultivating the soil, growing crops, paying very close attention to nature.

Ancient pagans thus based much of their view of life on the natural cycles of birth, death, and rebirth that they saw in the world of agriculture. In the Spring plants grew up out of the ground and in the Winter they died. When they died their seeds went into the earth, and the following Spring the plants were reborn.

This cycle occurred over and over again, year after year, with a regularity that could always be counted on to set the activities of the lives of human beings. The pagans attributed divinity to this regular, annual cycle of nature, and over time they invented a number of myths about gods who died and rose again following this cycle of nature.

These myths contained at their very center the idea of sacrifice. Men felt within themselves that there was a great distance between themselves and the gods, and they would sacrifice to the gods in order to try to reduce that gap. Often this involved some sort of burnt-offering of an animal, but sometimes it was as simple as pouring out the first drink of one’s wine onto the ground in honor of whatever god one was hoping to please (this was called a “libation,” from the Latin word for drink, libo).

A bigger kind of sacrifice in these religions, however, involved the nature god himself (i.e., Adonis, Osiris, and others) dying as a way to reduce the distance between all of nature itself and the highest power in the universe. By telling the mythological stories and performing the rituals associated with the stories, many Ancient pagans thought that they were somehow “tapping into” the divine power that was at work in nature. They thought that they could make that divine power look on them with benevolence rather than malevolence.

G.K. Chesterton (in his book The Everlasting Man) once said of these pagan nature myths that they provided men with some of the things that real religions provide, but not the most important ones. For instance, pagan nature myths provided the Ancient man with a calendar by which to understand the cycles of the natural world, but they did not provide him with something really substantial to believe in – such as, say, the creeds of Christianity do. The mythological stories could give the pagans pictures of what to believe in, but they could not give the pagans the thing itself to believe in.
The gods were very mysterious and incomprehensible to the pagans, and although the pagans told many myths about the gods they always knew deep down that these myths were just imaginary pictures they had made up to try to explain things that they did not really understand.

According to Chesterton, these myths were man’s attempt to reach God solely by means of his imagination, and although much truth was found in this way much truth also remained hidden from men. The Apostle Paul says this plainly in Acts 17, when he tells the Athenians that they have been “groping for God,” and that their own poets have discovered some true things about God, he, Paul, will now tell them what they do not know – namely, Jesus Christ.

C.S. Lewis has called these dying gods “corn-kings” because their sacrificial deaths were always tied up with the growth, death, and rebirth of corn, an absolutely essential agricultural product of the Ancient world. In his book Miracles Lewis said that when he was an unbeliever, one of the reasons why he rejected Christianity was that it seemed to be so out of touch with these Ancient themes of natural cycles and the human responses to them. Later, however, he realized that Christ is the ultimate “Corn-King.” Jesus is the One who made the corn, and He is also the One who sacrificed Himself to make it possible not for a vague “distance” between men and gods to be healed, but for men to be restored to the one true God’s fellowship.

According to Lewis, then, the Ancient pagan myths about “corn-kings” prefigured Jesus Christ in very dim, very distorted, but still identifiable ways. The pagan “corn-kings” were what we might call “types and shadows” of Jesus Christ, the one true “Corn-King” in whom we must all place our faith if we are to be saved.

As Christians, as believers in the Bible, we must, of course, realize that the Ancient stories about gods who died and rose again – the mythological stories of these “corn kings” – were as a whole false and that they frequently led those who held to them into idolatry. (This is what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 1:18-28.)

Nevertheless, as Christians we should also recognize that these Ancient stories contained significant elements of truth that are also found in Christianity. The Ancient “corn-kings” were imperfect, distorted pictures of the redemption that God would one day send to earth in the Person of His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.

As such, the mythological stories about the “corn-kings” helped to prepare the minds and hearts of the pagans for the day when they would hear the true story about the only true Corn-King, the one who fulfilled perfectly all their old stories about birth, death, and the resurrection from the dead. The “corn-kings” were not enough for salvation, but they did point to salvation.

Not all Christians today are willing to take this sort of “positive” view of Ancient mythology. Some think that all Ancient tales are nothing but demonic superstition, and that the study of them should be entirely avoided by Christians. It is a debate that has taken place among Christians from almost the beginning of our religion.

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What Is “Philosophy”?

[As my first official post on this now re-opened blog, I offer the following non-scholarly meditation on the question "What is Philosophy?" This is part of a short textbook I am presently writing for a 7th grade humanities class I will be teaching this coming Fall.]

The term “philosophy” comes from two Greek words, philos (love of) and sophia (wisdom), so it means literally “love of wisdom.” Philosophy begins with asking questions. When we start to reflect upon – that is, to think seriously about – ourselves and the world that we live in, we quickly realize how BIG everything is and how SMALL we are. We realize that we do not know very much at all, and that certainly we do not know as much as we like to think we know!

Something you will come to appreciate as you get older is the saying “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I still don’t know.” At any rate, once we realize that we do not know very much, we are in a position to start asking questions about the things that we do not know.

Many people believe that Socrates (469 B.C.–399 B.C.) was “the father of philosophy.” Socrates was famous for saying that true wisdom consists in knowing that you do not know, and in then spending your life trying to find out. He was also famous for saying “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

According to Socrates, most people do not know most of what they think they know. In fact, most of what they think they know consists of prejudices that they have not exposed to the light of inquiry on the basis of reason. According to Socrates, most people regularly confuse appearance (what only seems to be the case) with reality (what actually is the case). By asking questions and exploring them to try to find answers, Socrates encouraged people to think philosophically – to seek true wisdom rather than just what seemed to be wisdom.

Philosophy does its work by means of reason. Philosophy starts with our ordinary, daily experiences, asks questions about them, and tries to logically figure out the answers to the questions. Philosophy is, therefore, concerned with matters that we can figure out for ourselves – matters that we do not need special guidance from God to figure out.

Books about philosophy, about philosophical topics, can get very complicated very fast, and many very smart people spend their whole lives “doing philosophy.” Usually they write long sentences full of big words that are difficult to understand without a great deal of education.

It does not have to be this way, however. If we take Socrates as our model (and you will read a lot of Socrates before this year is over!), philosophy can be defined very simply by three statements:

• “Know yourself.”
• “Nothing to excess.”
• “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

When you really start to “know yourself,” you will know (like Socrates, and also like all the wise men of the Bible!) that you are not much at all. You will know, with Job, that a human being is “Like a flower he comes forth and withers. He also flees like a shadow and does not remain.” (Job 14:2)

You will also realize the truth of what God said to Job about how pitiful Job’s knowledge was: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4) Recognizing the fundamental fact about yourself that you do not know puts you in a frame of mind to learn things, because you do not think that you already know. This is the beginning of a philosophical way of thinking. It is also what Scripture teaches: “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Cor. 8:1).

When you know that you do not know, you will also be prepared to live your life avoiding excesses. Philosophy can help teach you to understand the difference between the mere appearance of Good and the reality of Good.

You will very often find in your life that what appears to be Good to you the first time you look at it is not what really is Good. More often than not, the things that only appear to be Good will be excesses of one kind or another, while the thing that really is Good will be something moderate.

Lastly, philosophy teaches you to live your life with an attitude of examining everything to see whether it is true or false. This is not just a dictum of philosophy, though. The Bible tells us the same thing:

• Philippians 4:8 – “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”

• 1 Thessalonians 5:21 – “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.”

One of the things you will encounter as you become more mature in your faith is the large issue of how to relate philosophy (which does its work by means of reason) with your religious beliefs (which you hold by faith).

This is a difficult task, and you need to remember that Christians very often disagree with each other about how to do this. In the things that they say in their essays, the writers of the Omnibus present you with one way to do it. You need to know that there are other ways, and that this is an issue on which Christians have disagreed with each other from the very beginning of our Faith.

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The Discarded Image

My new website, The Discarded Image, is now up and running. There is not a lot there at the moment, but I have a number of things “in the pipeline,” so to speak, and will hopefully be able to get those up very soon. Among them will be the “Store” link and the “Study Center” link. I am aware that there are some irregularities in the navigation bar menu as it appears on various pages. Please bear with me as I get all of that smoothed out.

A part of me wants to return to blogging, but a bigger part of me is still hesitant to do so for a variety of reasons. The new website has a section that looks like a blog, Ad Fontes (see the link at the top), but I am only going to use that for posting matters that I have spent a fair bit of time looking into and which I can write about by grounding all that I say directly in the sources. Posts to that section of the new site will thus be sporadic, but when they do appear they will be substantive.

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We Just Need More Loans (We Do?)

This is a rambly post without a definite conclusion, so I apologize in advance. I’m just thinking out loud, so don’t take it overly seriously. I saw a news story today about Ben Bernanke talking big about how people and businesses just need more loans to keep our economy going. This sort of stuff just makes me sick to my stomach when I compare it with the ideas about economics put forth in many ancient sources, including but not related to the almost unanimous Christian opinion over the last two thousand years that lending money at interest is at best a very questionable thing to do since it too easily slides into mere base usury.

I don’t know what the answer is to all this, because it’s just a fundamental philosophical (and behind that, spiritual) problem with the way our culture thinks about money and possessions. We think life is about buying, buying, buying, accumulating, accumulating, accumulating – we have no sense of proportion about either the possession of “stuff” or the acquisition of money. Businesses surely ought to be able to make profits, but they don’t have any realistic view of how much profit is enough profit.

And of course, so many people’s jobs, their very ability to provide for their families, is all wrapped up in ventures (such as construction) that can’t be done without loans based on the lender’s hope of future gain. You no doubt remember the potential scare last year about all the ships that might have wound up sitting in port, their cargoes of precious food rotting, because banks wouldn’t loan out money to get the food distributed to the stores because no one could guarantee said banks that they’d get a “good” return on their loans. Fortunately that problem did not occur, but it could have given our screwed up assumptions about money and economics in general.

And let’s not even start talking about loans and education. I am myself the willing recipient of Federal money to go to school, because all the schools are so stinking expensive that unless you get loans you might as well just forget any kind of higher education that will pay off in terms of an Official Piece of Paper that you can show prospective employers in order to get paid a better salary than you might otherwise. But in the meantime, just to get there you have to go into massive debt and contend with a mailbox that regularly gets stuffed with offers from credit card companies to go into even more debt so that while you’re in school you can have all the “stuff” that our culture incessantly preaches you need in order to have “the good life.” Lately I’ve had a “debt reduction” company calling me at home repeatedly, trying to get me to get a loan from them so that I can pay off my other loans, thus supposedly reducing my debts.

What a stinking mess.

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Ambrose: On The Mysteries

Alright, here will start the discussion on this work by St. Ambrose. Feel free to comment, after you’ve read it, on pretty much any angle of it you wish. Background information you may have already would also be helpful to the discussion. Two places you may find the work are CCEL – Ambrose: On the Mysteries and New Advent – Ambrose: On the Mysteries.

Posted in Discussions and Debates | 15 Comments