Sunday, July 27, 2008

Homer on the Radio

Carmen was taunting me on the air last week about a casual reference to Homer's Odyssey, a foundational text in Western culture. I wagered her (because we would never "bet" on The Morning Cruise) that I could find a truck driver or construction worker who had read it, and take his or her call live on the air within ten minutes. I did. The guy was working with soffit molding the moment he called. He admitted to having read The Odyssey under compulsion (for a grade), but said he should probably read it again. Carmen replied that the difference between me and a "regular guy" (like the soffitmaster on the phone) was that I read this stuff for fun. Not really.

I haven't read The Odyssey since my high school AP literature class. I'm not even sure if I ever read the whole epic or not. Of course, I'm well-acquainted with the story of Odysseus's ten year journey home to Ithica after the Trojan War, as I thought everyone was. Odysseus's battle with the Cyclops, his resistance of the temptation of the Sirens, and other such scenes have reverberated in various forms in Western literature, poetry and even movies (Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?). So, no, I haven't read either The Iliad or The Odyssey just for fun. On the other hand, I did just finish a great book ABOUT these and other ancient classics. And it was fun!

Lou Markos, professor of English at Houston Baptist College, lecturer on several courses by The Teaching Company, C.S. Lewis scholar and my friend released From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics in 2007. Following C.S. Lewis's lead and complementing the work of scholars like Peter Leithart, Markos aims to redeem muthos (myth and mythology) as an apt vehicle for truth -- truth that can only find its omega-point in Jesus Christ, whose coming into the world is (following Tolkien / Lewis) "myth made fact." Like the Magi in the gospel story, mythmakers catch a glimpse of God's truth in nature (human nature, in the case of myth) and some follow it on a path toward Bethlehem. Through "vigorous interaction" with the Greek and Roman classics, Markos sifts plot and character, symbol and theme, as a model of Christian discernment and appropriation.

Markos's subjects are the epic poetry and drama of the Greek tragedians and the Roman Virgil's Aeneid. Part one of the 264 page book is dedicated to Homer and his two great epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey. The latter occupies chapters six, seven and eight. What can we learn from this poetic work of fiction, coming from a pagan culture some 700 years prior to the birth of Christ? According to Markos, The Odyssey is a domestic epic, that is, the motivation of the main character is to return home and restore order (oikonomia) to both his home and his kingdom of Ithica. Personal glory is not enough for Odysseus. In a world where barbarism is more common than civilization, Odysseus will resist temptation and hardship to embody the quality of xenia, a sort of "hospitality code" that defines a people as much as any philosophy or military battle. Devotion to his wife, his house and his country motivates the hero throughout, calling the audience to question how important these attachments are to their individual lives and society.

Thus we have a building-block for Western civilization. The Bible makes use of this ethos in Greek culture, where Paul employs "household codes" as the setting for key teaching on the ordering of Christian society (see Ephesians 5:21-33, for example). Moreover, all of us who have grown up in Western culture take for granted that we ought to be willing to fight for our home and family, that the family rather than tribe, national identity, etc. is the basic unit of society. The Odyssey dramatizes xenia in a way that gives the West a context for understanding and receiving the New Testament's teaching. Can we then say that God used Homer to prepare Greek culture for the revelation of Jesus, that The Odyssey contains truth that helps the world understand Truth?

Markos affirms those notions, and so do I. As much as the Author of Scripture knew the ring John 1:1 would have in a Greek ear, thanks to the philosophical idea of the Logos as the rational principle that holds the universe together, so too He prepared the world through pagan literature. This is not to say Greek literature is inspired in the same way as Scripture. Divine special revelation is found only in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the inerrant verbal witness of the apostles and prophets, preserved accurately and adequately in the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments. The notion of God the Author preparing his audience, however, is a fit instance of Christ's coming "in the fulness of times" (Galatians 4:4).

Within the framework of a brief introduction to the classics, From Achilles to Christ demonstrates the importance for Christians of every age who seek to reform their culture to find and refresh the core values and vision that originally shaped and subsequently sustained that culture. Like the narrative of Odysseus, the canon of Western literature provides many rich examples of formative or reflective clarification of our common values. For American Christians today who often complain about cultural decline, more than an inflamed appeal to our founding fathers is necessary. The elusive search for a common ethos in the midst of growing pluralism may be better guided by reaching further back into our history. We must do the kind of thing Markos does in this book.

So, the journey home describes both Odysseus's quest and my own in serving God's kingdom in an industry situated on the front porch of American culture. Broadcasting, specifically Christian broadcasting, fits in the space -- the vacuum -- created when Bible believing Christians abandoned their calling to be salt and light, redeemers of culture. Like Homer's Odyssey, I hope my own life and work outline a journey in which people find themselves questioning their assumptions, clarifying their core commitments. Above all, I pray the contour of my life, like the common grace that shaped Greek culture in Homer's day, will point people, even if imperfectly, toward a perfect Redeemer who alone fulfills our deepest longings and defines our highest aspirations. Then and only then will my muthos -- the story of my life -- be worth reading.

8 comments:

Beth said...

Okay, I have to agree with Carmen. I appreciate a good book, and sharing my views and such about what I just read, but I guess I am a simple person and live by faith, more than most. Things that challenge me too much I tend to not "waste my brain". I only have so little to spare, and it's saved for special things, like the beauty of nature and the works God performs right in front of me. The story of the folks at the church who took off their shoes and left them for the upcoming mission is an example of the things I like to "utilize" my brian on. Don't stop what your doing, however you'll continue to reach the best of the best!
In Christ,
Beth Zecca

Ismary said...

Beth, you seem to be somehow of Gray's opinion that "if ignorance be bliss, tis folly to be wise." Though Gray was a great crazy piece of mind too. I think that if God gave us a brain to rationalize why not do it? Though I understand that not everybody has the same tastes nor interests, but I am one who enjoys reading so I have to defend Bill here. Bill, that was a great review thought I couldn't read it all because I am in a hurry. I haven't read Homer because in high school I had to learn English and my interest in lit has pretty much increased now that I am a 4th year British Lit major at UF. Last semester I took a Chaucer's class and it was pretty interesting because the teacher taught a lot of literary theory and Chaucer makes a lot of classical reference, so that was neat :). For my final paper for that class I read a piece of the Iliad to compare it to Chaucer's tale of Dido and Aeneas. :) Oh well too much writtiing; have fun and keep doing what you are doing :O, you should become a critic or a writer yourself.

Anonymous said...

great book review Bill! I too have had moments where I can perceive how cultural myths that sit outside of the traditional Christian framework can be translated to point to God's plan of salvation through Christ's redemptive work.
The thing that bothered me about your post was this one sentence..."Within the framework of a brief introduction to the classics, 'From Achilles to Christ' demonstrates the importance for Christians of every age who seek to reform their culture to find and refresh the core values and vision that originally shaped and subsequently sustained that culture." It is good to find the core values and vision that originally shaped and sustained any given culture, but only if that information is then used to transform that culture's vision and values into Christ's vision and values. It is Christ who sustains us as individuals and as a body, and expressing that will transform our culture, not vice versa. We need to reform our culture to "reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ."(Ephesians 4:13)
Anyway, I'm probably reading way too much into that sentence. I'm not an English lit major and not as gifted with words as you are. Thank you for pointing out on the air that using our intellect does not exclude practicing our faith.

kimberly said...

During a classical lit class in high school (many years ago) we studied quite a bit of Greek mythology andwhere it pops up in other literature. Of course, being a student at the time, it was less interesting to me than my social life. After college, I came across my old copy of Dante's Inferno and read it on my own, without being "assigned." I have since read it numerous times and it also led me back to the works of Homer and Virgil. Then a tv movie starring Armand Assante called Odyssey peaked my interest once again. I receive many raised eyebrows when people find out what I read for "fun," and I don't always set out to read a book to learn something. If I read for fun, messages tend to sink in a bit better. When I am not being led by someone else as to what to look for, I can usually find what I need. The pervasiveness (word?) of Greek culture from Paul's time even to our own shows that while some of their activities and beliefs were off the mark, the importance of family and community has always been clear. Thanks for another recommendation. I'll check it out as soon as I can.

Bill Martin's Personal Ramblings said...

Great comments everyone! Thanks for the reflections, affirmations and gentle critique. I'd like to reinforce something Kimberly said: reading the classics for fun, just for the joy of discovery, is probably the most profitable way to read them, especially for those of us who were assigned them in school. I find that I retain more when I can just go romping around in a text (if any of you report to Carmen that I used the bookish expression "romping around in a text" I will find you and roll your yard in toilet paper!). As for finding the contours of Christ, don't forget that God's kingdom ultimately includes the whole world, and "common grace" ensures that even in "secular" art the outline of God can be seen. As long as the Christian mind can recognize the distinction between the "outline" and the imperfect expressions of fallen humanity in which it resides, we can receive them and "use" them redemptively.

Feel free to keep this discussion going, anyone! I'll check back!

Bill

Marsha said...

You bring up some great points in your blog, Bill! I haven't read the Iliad or Odyssey since those texts were assigned in high school and again in college. Actually, oddly enough, my fellow Honors students and profs spent an afternoon taking turns reading the Odyssey--the entire text--in front of the library. Can't say that anyone stayed the entire day, though.

Hate to break it to Carmen, but I think it's important for us to be aware of the classics and various interpretations of their meanings. After all, these same story lines are repeated over and over again in movies and TV, and I feel that if we are familiar with the older references, it sheds new meaning on the re-tellings. These things enhance understanding and often lead to those "light bulb" moments where we understand things more deeply, even if we cannot find the right words to express our insights.

Travis said...

I have never been assigned The Iliad or the Odyssey in any school. However, they are two of 80 books in my library's "to do list" and I am sort of saving them for last so I can take my time with them. I am one of those few people who discovered the joy of reading at an early age and do it purely for the enyoyment of discovery. I will soon have "From Achilles to Christ" on my to do list as well. My wife heard about this on the radio, and I just read all the posts and have to say, what an awesome discussion. I just wanted to recommend a later classic piece that is actually based on christian ideals. Don Quixote was commissioned by the Catholic church of the late 16th century (or early 17th) as a lesson on the evils of empty pop liturature (which is the cuase of Don Quixote's madness). This can still be applied to today's literatre as well as television and movies. This may be the hardest book you may read, but it is so worth it. I consider it a 16th century christian Mel Brooks paradoy. Tell me that doesn't peek your interest!

Bill Martin's Personal Ramblings said...

TRAVIS has a great take on the whole discussion! Don Quixote and Mel Brooks, huh? Or maybe Mel Brooks AS Don Quixote? Yes, my interest is definitely piqued.