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.