Monday, July 23, 2012

Reading Old, Dead, White Guys

Hang on tight I leap from my first 2 books related to IT, with a brief swerve through an economic treatise, to Homer as explicated in From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics, by Louis Markos. Earlier last school year a colleague who was teaching the Odyssey said she was reading this book and finding it helpful. I read the introduction at the time--it was so congruent to my thinking I wondered if I’d read it sometime in my forgotten past. Then I thought I should at least read the part about the Odyssey, but at sea in the tyranny of the urgent, I put that off until summer. 

Now it’s summer, and the section on the Odyssey was so interesting, I decided to read the whole Markos book (and maybe even the Odyssey)! I enjoyed the perfectly sized summaries of the Greek works, the confirmation of my ideas about truth and literature, and good examples of truths seen by the Greek writers; however, I felt Markos overstates the case, elevating Greek literature and culture above all others, just under the Bible.
First, I thought the book would be beyond me since I struggle to even keep the Greek and Roman names sorted out properly. I read a Scholastic kids’ picture book version of the Iliad to one of my daughters, and we were both shocked by the violence--no wonder Troy was rated R! But these chapters gave brief summaries of the relevant parts of the plots in a way that was really engaging. (After years of teaching Hamlet, who knew that Laertes was also the name of Odysseus’s father?! Or that the various authors often treated the same source material, but with an entirely different twist--again like Shakespeare.)
Why do these stories--whether Homer or Shakespeare--continue to live in people’s imagination? What can it be, other than they resonate inside us in a way that feels like truth. It’s the truth permeating creation, which bears its Maker’s fingerprints, including the humans, who bear the Maker’s image. However fallen the creation and fragmented the image, truth exists, and people search for it because they bear the image of the one who is Truth and the one who is creative and gave them the task of continuing to develop the potential of the the creation. Literature is one of the records of this search and development. 

While as a Christian I believe that the Bible is the clearest revelation and plumb line of truth by which to measure all else that feels like truth, I also believe that it can be enjoyable and profitable to follow that human search for truth. Paul also believed this, quoting Greek poets 5 times and most famously, in his speech to the Aeropagus in Acts 17, connecting with the fragments of truth his pagan Greek audience had grasped, that there is a divine being whose offspring they are, who they are feeling after and trying to find, who they have expressed as “the unknown God,” and who Paul can tell them more about.
Markos points out truths in the stories that show the Greeks feeling after the God Paul said “is not far from each one of us” (NIV, Acts 17.27). The Odyssey’s code of hospitality for strangers demonstrates that the law written on the ancient Greeks’ hearts was very similar to the one Jesus talked about in the parable of the sheep and the goats. The Greek gods, for all their pettiness and moral failings, are passionate and are passionately involved in the world, unlike the Babylonian and Egyptian gods, or the later philosophers’ “Prime Mover.” And I love how Markos traces the development of Achilles’ search for meaning in existence through the Iliad, from “we are all going to die, so let us gain glory,” to “we are all going to die, so let us live,” to “we are all going to die, so let’s get on with it,” and finally to “we are all going to die, so let us grieve together” (77). We are all going to die, and our eternal souls struggle to come to make sense of that doom--which we know Christ defeated by joining us in our suffering and death. Of course, without divine revelation, there are many things the Greek authors miss. But these were a few of the “hits” I found intriguing. 
Not that I agree with Markos in everything. I knew I had a slight difference with him from the first page of the introduction where he says in a footnote, “True to the legacy of the great literature that I will be discussing in this book, I will be using traditional English grammar throughout. That is to say, I will use he and his as gender-inclusive pronouns and man, men and mankind to refer collectively to the human race.” Well, at least he’s up-front about it. 
Another odd note came out again at the end of the introduction where he compares Christian homeschoolers and classical schools to Irish monks preserving the Greek and Roman classics “through a potential new dark age” (24). Later he claims of America’s democratic system “that the only reason that system works is that it is built on a body of citizens who are mostly Christian and therefore morally self-regulating. That is to say, if America were ever to lose her grounding in Christian morality, her governmental systems would eventually collapse from within” (88). Which begs several questions: How did the Greek system work? What about that law written on the human heart? What about the fallenness even of Christians (the Atlantic slave trade, western colonization, the medieval Catholic church)? What of the morality of other cultures? And if European-Americans will be a minority in the US by 2020, tracing “American” from the Greeks through the Jews to Christianity will disenfranchise the majority of the citizens. 
I can see Aeneas, like Ulysses, as an expression of the human sense of exile from the expulsion from the Garden until our homecoming to the New Jerusalem, also typified by all the wanderings of God’s people. But I stop short of seeing Aeneas as prefiguring the patriarch Abraham, shepherding his people toward the promised land. And I think that TuFu, Franz Kafka, and Mario Vargas Llosa also express that loss and longing. In fact, I’m beginning to suspect a story doesn’t even have to be “great literature” to express truth. Any story that captures an audience’s attention for any length of time must have struck some chord.  
Here’s what I mean. Along with The Hunger Games, the Cherub series was making its rounds this past year in my class, a big hit with some of the avowed non-readers. One wrote in an online discussion that she loves the Cherub series because it’s about some kids who are orphans, and someone recognizes their special talents, and sends them on a mission only they can do. While she meant it on a purely concrete level, it suddenly hit me that, at some deep level, that is exactly what we all are--orphans, waiting for someone to discover our special talents and give us a mission only we can do.
By all means, read the introduction to this book. Pick one or two of the works you’re interested in to get an idea of how Markos naturally identifies the fragment of truth the author is feeling after in it. For those of us so long habituated to the Christian way of articulating that truth, seeing it in another culture can renew our appreciation for it and for the God who has left the imprint of his truth all over the creation as well as in his creatures. But then go off to other authors, times, cultures--and look for God and the way people have seen his truth in creation there. And maybe you can even use that truth to connect someone from that culture to the Truth. 
Markos, Louis. From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007. Print.

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