Friday, April 22, 2016

Human Again: The Gospel According to Homer (the Greek, not Simpson)

By guest blogger Reverend Matthew Metevelis of Reformation Lutheran Church, Las Vegas, Nevada

I’ve been a big fan of the epic poet Homer since reading him in high school.  The richness of the narrative, the resonance of the words, and the imaginative world it depicts has always been a source of fascination to me – not to mention the mystery surrounding who Homer is.  Homer was the first “author”, with the help of an outstanding teacher, who showed me what literature is and how to love it.  I also used to write what only can be classed as “fan fiction” in horrible little iambic hexameter rhyming poems describing my favorite scenes from the epics. So when I came about Clint’s blog post about how much he loved reading Homer and how much it made him think of the gospels as a fellow Lutheran pastor with a love of the Greek and Roman classics I couldn’t help but start engaging with him on Facebook.  He asked me to write my thoughts and here they are.

The epics of Homer were the causes of deep scandal not only for the fathers of the early church but also for Greek philosophers.  Gods were supposed to be perfect beings – safely above the capricious and often uncontrollable feelings, jealousies, anxieties, and pains.  The depictions of the gods in Homer’s poems were in no small way responsible for Plato to exclaim that poets would be absolutely barred from his perfect city.  How can we exhort people to the moral rectitude that philosophy demands of them if the gods themselves misbehave?  Some of the earliest theologians of the church, Clement, Augustine, Jerome, agreed and strove to depict God in Jesus Christ as a superior rational and moral center to the dissolute pagan mythological universe that the Homeric epics represented.  For them Christianity was less a religion and more “the true philosophy.” The God they preached was the “logos” of the philosophers with a compassionate crucified center and a human face.

Perhaps because of the theological success of the ancient philosophers and the achievement of the church fathers Homer has been relegated for us to the role of a mere storyteller.  Nobody would ever read about Homer very much in a history of religious thought or even find him cited in a sermon.  For us Homer tells stories to make Hollywood blockbusters and also bore high school and college students as great books in the “you should read” category.  Homer is used to excite the imagination but never to lift the spirit.  We work hard as preachers with the help of centuries old doctrine to make the saga of Jesus Christ relevant for our congregations.  But is there good news in Homer?

I’ll avoid the analysis, already voluminous, on how great stories create and add value to our lives.  This is certainly true for Homer as well.  But in the case of Homer this good news rises above teaching and inspiring us in the same way that the morals of all our favorite stories like Star Wars and Harry Potter do.  The good news in Homer comes from more than just the stories and the characters.  Homer preaches to us by placing those stories and characters within a very unique interpretation of his (or maybe her?) own world that is dripping in theological assumptions.  These stories can’t even begin to exist in Homer’s poems without the bold assertions Homer makes about the gods and men.

Let’s begin with the problem of evil.  It is an enormous testimony to the triumph of the ancient philosophers and the early church theologians that we typically pose the question about the problem of evil in the following way.  How does evil exist if the world has a rational and good creator?  Think about it.  We now culturally take the existence of a good God or a rational order as the granted.  It would not have been so in the world of primordial religion.  I’m about to do some major speculating but still journey with me, I promise it will be fruitful if you’re not already an anthropologist ready to rip my head off.  The original question would have been like this.  Why does this evil stuff happen to me?  The answer that would have been given would have been that there was some god you offended or your family offended somewhere that could be appeased by following a simple ritual.  The primitive idea of a god might have been not only a way to answer the question about why stuff happened but the deeper question of why bad stuff happens to me and my family.  The world Homer inhabited was one like the one the philosopher Thales described, “full of gods.”  None of them cared about you unless there was something in it for them, and it would have been entirely common for bad stuff to happen to you just because you got pulled into their mess.  You could only hope to follow the right rituals and sacrifices so that the gods would either grant you some boon or leave you alone.  Crop failure, infant mortality, unaccounted natural disasters, and brutality greater than we can imagine today were the rule of life in ancient times.  The chaos people experienced from these things was imagined to be a battleground for superior but cruel and careless beings called gods.

For the most part Homer not only lives in this tumultuous world but seems uncritically comfortable with it.  To my knowledge nowhere in Homer do his characters yell at the universe like Hamlet or King Lear (or Job) do feeling like the system is rigged against them.  When humans do think about the gods in Homer’s stories they do so with a great degree of fatalism.  The characters in Greek tragedies at least whine and moan (Orestes, Oedipus, Hippolytus) but Homer’s characters just go about their business as pawns in a great game with no rules and they don’t seem to care.  This is what the ancient philosophers and the early church theologians were swiping at when they sought to improve upon this, looking for the solid ground of a universe that is more rational and moral.  Homer not only accepts the world of capricious and immoral gods and the people who suffer from it but seems totally comfortable with it.

The good news of Homer begins to stream in when we seek to discover why he is so comfortable with a capricious, immoral, and chronically fallible universe.  It has less to do with anything Homer has to say about it than what Homer sees in it.  And what he sees ultimately is the human.  Homer sees human beings laughing, loving, parenting, farming, relaxing, teaching, striving, planning, plotting, consoling, building, fighting, dancing, shopping, eating, drinking, and ultimately living.  For him there is a beauty in the fleshy trees that gets lost when you think too much about the lofty forest as philosophers later would.  Note one of the most unique sections in the Iliad, the depiction of Achilles’ shield (the translation is Robert Fagles):

“And the crippled Smith brought all his art to bear
on a dancing circle, broad as the circle Daedalus
once laid out on Cnossos’ spacious fields
for Ariadne the girl with lustrous hair.
Here young boys and girls, beauties courted
with costly gifts of oxen, danced and danced,
linking their arms, gripping each other’s wrists.
And the girls wore robes of linen light and flowing,
the boys wore fine spun tunics rubbed with a gloss of oil,
the girls were crowned with a bloom of fresh garlands,
the boys swung golden daggers hung on silver belts.
And now they would run in rings on their skilled feet,
nimbly, quick as a crouching potter spins his wheel,
palming it smoothly, giving it practice twirls
to see it run, and now they would run in rows,
in rows crisscrossing rows – rapturous dancing.
A breathless crowd stood round them stuck with joy
and through them a pair of tumblers dashed and sprang,
whirling in leaping handsprings, leading on the dance.” (Book 18:689-707)

This is the final scene in one of many etched on Achilles’ shield by the god Hephaestus.  All the scenes described depict some form of human life – agriculture, city life, battles – with the same beautiful detail.   Homer is able to capture the richness of human existence with radically precise and yet sweeping depictions like these and it is here that he finds meaning.  The world is beautiful not because it follows some grand order, or because some creative force calls it good, but because even in the midst of pain, despair, random destruction and strife there is the striving and sacrifice of human beings longing for connection to one another.  The battlefield and the perilous journey mark so much of our lives but for Homer they represent a grand quest that leads people to the true beauty and joy that can only come in flourishing human civilization.

The quest for order is especially evident in the sequel.  The Odyssey pits the wily and cunning hero Odysseus against a series of disasters, misadventures, and plots as he strives to return home to his wife and his home.  Odysseus suffers throughout the story due to the fury of the god Poseidon and is guided by Athena.  In this story “earth-shaking” Poseidon represents the ocean and all the forces of stormy chaos and confusion while Athena represents order and civilization.  The strife in Odysseus’s journey is matched only by the strife in his home.  After conquering both Odysseus enters the stability of his home and the love of his family – the places that make him complete and allow him to find the rest he sorely needs.

Just as Odysseus triumphs over chaos to find order as the hero of the Iliad Achilles makes a similar transition.  But for Achilles the disorder he battles is not external it is internal.  Homer opens the entire poem with a word that even in English we might recognize – mania.  “Sing O Muse of the mania, the accursed mania that brought down so many sorrows on the Achaeans” Mania in Homer’s Greek denotes not only human frenzy and rage but something more like wrath.  It is an emotion rarely found in human beings.  It is more likely to be found in gods.  Achilles throughout the story suffers from a unique affliction.  He is angry as only the gods can be angry.  The wrath of Achilles causes awful things for Greeks and Trojans alike but the worst part of it is what it does to Achilles.  The wrath he feels makes him feel simultaneously more and less than a human being – combining the frenzy of beasts and the unchained and terrifying wrath of gods.

It all starts when Achilles’s camp girl is taken by Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek armies, who was forced to give back his own camp girl to a priest of Apollo who called down a plague on the assembled armies.  Women were war prizes back then – a terrible and sad fact.  Less for love of the girl and more for the bruise that Agamemnon inflicted upon his ego Achilles stays back in his tents and sulks with his companion Patroclus.  As Achilles is considered by far the best warrior among the Greeks the Greek army suffers terrible set-backs as he sits It out.  Eventually Patroclus decides to set out into the battlefield and is killed in valiant combat by the Trojan champion Hector. 

It is after the death of Patroclus that Achilles is drawn into a grief that takes his “mania” to new heights.  Rising up to battle Achilles cuts massive holes through the Trojan ranks and even fights the river Xanthus (anthropomorphized as a god).  Homer takes great pains to describe Achilles as an almost super-human force as his rage and grief combine until he sacks the greatest prize of all – killing his arch-rival Hector in single combat.  His bloodlust and rage not sated he drags the corpse of Hector around the walls of Troy in front of the entire city, flaunting the religious codes and most basic rules of human decency.  Achilles fights against that universe that so cruelly took the life of his friend, not by shaking his fist at the sky, but acting out in desecrating sacrilege against his fellow human beings.  Alienated from his fellow soldiers and denying dignity to his enemies Achilles is estranged from the human race. 

Clint made an excellent point in the original blog post.  Priam, the father of Hector, is almost like the prodigal father in Jesus’s parable.  It is Priam who welcomes Achilles back to the human race by coming to Achilles tent to make a desperate plea for the body of his son.  As King Priam kisses his hand Achilles is moved with compassion:

“Those words stirred within Achilles a deep desire
to grieve his own father.  Taking the old man’s hand
he gently moved him back.  And overpowered by memory
both men gave way to grief.  Priam wept freely
for man-killing Hector, throbbing, crouching
before Achilles’ feet as Achilles wept himself,
now for his father and now for Patroclus once again,
and their sobbing rose and fell throughout the house.” (Book 24:592-599)

Achilles has his grief which has risen to god-like “mania” cured by the presence of sincere human sorrow.  It is in sharing pain together that Priam gifts Achilles the gift of his humanity back.  Through tears Achilles once again is able to make a connection.  Achilles is made whole by becoming human again. 

Here is Homer’s gospel.  Human life may be cruel and awful but there is an immense grace to it whenever people find their way to each other in the same way Odysseus strives to go home or when Achilles sees the pain of others as his own pain.  Just like the joyful movement of the men and women in the dancing lines on Achilles’ shield there is a power to human connection that war, disaster, misery, and all the chaos in the world cannot break apart.  It is not in some subservience to imagined higher principles, in the logic of some system of laws, but in the way that human beings live and love one another that a true order and beauty arises.  It is not blinking in the overpowering light of truth as you emerge from the cave, or patterning yourself after the story you tell yourself about yourself, or even in chasing after some phantom of the holy that you find beauty, truth, and meaning. 

We get to be humans – even in an awful world this is good news.  In Homer’s world it means seeing and embracing life in the people around you, being sustained in the connections about you, and joining in that beautiful dance of the human race or just standing on the side taking the sheer energy and joy of it in.  The beauty of the world is in the life of concrete human beings as long as we remain open to them and dare to be rescued from our chaotic thoughts and pains that threaten to cut us off.  I find the power of those connections every day as a hospice chaplain in the way that people stay by the side of those they love and honor them by daring to grieve for them.  Homer’s poems present a beautiful world in which the lives that human beings are able to create finding refuge from the chaos if they can’t conquer it completely.  It is a human world worth living and loving in.  A certain God of Israelite extraction could not help agreeing and joining in.  Homer, without intending it at all, might just give you some rich clues as to where to find him.  It is so much better than anything a philosopher and even a few theologians might tell you.  Trust a poet.         

While searching for an image for this blog post, I found this:

No comments:

Post a Comment