Theology of Everything
Cos everything's theological
The Devil has no Stories
- Peter Leithart is a prolific writer on theology and literature. He is pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho. View all resources by Peter Leithart
Perhaps those poets of long ago who sang
the Age of Gold, its pristine happiness,
were dreaming on Parnassus of this place.
The root of mankind’s tree was guiltless here;
here, in an endless Spring, was every fruit,
such is the nectar praised by all these poets.
Purgatorio 28, 139–144
“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Tertullian exclaimed, and his question has echoed through the following centuries. Tertullian’s own answer—“not much”—was not universally shared in the early church. Many of the early apologists, to be sure, expressed their disgust with the loose morality found in the gods of mythology (but then, so did Plato), and Augustine repented of his youthful passion for Virgil and the Roman theater. Yet, Origen and Clement, theologians of Alexandria, were deeply impressed with neo-Platonic philosophy, and Augustine’s impressive but incomplete escape from Platonism was the result of tremendous intellectual exertion.
Tertullian’s question has taken on fresh relevance today with the rise of classical Christian schools. In its origins, the Christian school movement was largely in line with Tertullian’s perspective: Christian schools were founded on the model of Jerusalem rather than Athens. In the last decade, however, many Christian schools have introduced classical elements into their curricula, and among the elements of the classical approach is a renewed attention to classical literature. Jerusalem has moved marginally closer to Athens, and some are beginning to pose Tertullian’s question again.
Heroes of the City of Man is a book about Athens by an author who resides contentedly in Jerusalem. One of the foundational assumptions of this study is that there is a profound antithesis, a conflict, a chasm, between Christian faith and all other forms of thought and life. Though I appreciate the sheer aesthetic attraction of classical poetry and drama, I have no interest in helping construct Athrusalem or Jerens; these hybrids are monstrosities whose walls the church should breach rather than build. Instead, I have attempted to view Athens from a point securely within the walls of Jerusalem.
An accurate view is possible in spite of the great gulf fixed between the two cities. We have the technology. And, I believe there is profit to be had from this exploration of foreign territory. The purpose of this introduction is to describe the technology and to enumerate some benefits of deploying it.
The Problem of the Classics
A recent book that pleads for a return to “the classics” provides a starting point for our discussion. According to Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath’s Who Killed Homer?,1 the Greek view of the world, which they call “Greek wisdom,” is central to Western history and culture. Take away Greeks, and you take away all that is unique and good in our civilization: the autonomy of science and learning from religious and political authority, the civilian oversight of military power, constitutional and consensual government, separation of religion from political authority, faith in the average citizen, private property, freedom of dissent and open criticism of government, religion, and the military.
On purely historical grounds, a number of the details of this sketch are highly questionable. The authors claim that religion and political authority were separated in the Greek city. As evidence, they point out that, unlike many ancient cities, authority in a Greek city-state was not in the hands of a priest-king and that no prophet or seer had power to overrule the decisions of a Greek assembly. Though these points are accurate, there is overwhelming evidence that the Greek city-state was a religious as well as a political organization.
Every city was under the patronage of a god, goddess, or founder-hero. At the center of each city was the hestia, a common hearth-fire or altar that served as the center for civic festivals. When a Greek city established a colony, fire from the city hestia was taken to the new colony so that the altar in the colony burned with the same fire as the mother city. Meetings of the assembly at Athens began with the sacrifice of a pig. From these and many other practices, Zaidman and Schmitt Pantel conclude that Greek civic life was “impregnated” with religion and that there was “no separation between the sacred and the profane.”2
Hanson and Heath also claim that faith in the average citizen is an inheritance of the ancient Greeks. Perhaps there is some basis for this commonplace, but it must be remembered that citizenship was a very restricted privilege in Greek cities. Rules for citizenship became more stringent with time, and it was ultimately decided that only children of a legally recognized marriage between two Athenian citizens were themselves citizens. As a result, a large proportion of the inhabitants of a Greek polis were not citizens but resident aliens. This is not faith in the “common man” but in the “right men.”
Putting these inaccuracies to one side, however, Hanson and Heath raise a more fundamental question: Did Greek wisdom build the West? Do we enjoy the freedoms we enjoy because of Greece? Is recovering the wisdom of the Greeks the way to restore our society? For Christians, the clear answer to these questions is a resounding “No.” Greeks worshiped and served what are not gods, and idolatry, the Bible assures us, has considerable social and cultural implications. When Paul visited Athens, he did not praise its artistic, literary, or philosophical achievements but was provoked at the countless idolatrous shrines and altars (Acts 17:16). To the extent we share Paul’s zeal to see the true God worshiped everywhere, we will react to Greek and Roman literature with similar provocation. Greek thought and culture, founded as it is in idolatry, does not represent “wisdom.” It is, at base, folly.
And it is folly that must provoke us, as it did Paul, to opposition. The basic biblical paradigm for dealing with idolatrous religions, their ideas, literature, and practices is unrelenting, total, holy war. Scripture instructs us to make war against the gods of the nations. God leaves us no room for neutrality, no room for borrowing weapons from Greece or from Rome, anymore than we are permitted to borrow some of the “good ideas” found in Hinduism, Islam, or Buddhism. Moses urged Israel in ferocious language to utterly destroy the gods of the Canaanites:
When the Lord your God shall bring you into the land where you are entering to possess it, and shall clear away many nations before you . . . and when the Lord your God shall deliver them before you, and shall defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them. . . . But thus you shall do to them: you shall tear down their altars, and smash their sacred pillars,
and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire. (Deut. 7:1–5)
These are the statutes and the judgments which you shall carefully observe in the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess as long as you live on the earth. You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. And you shall tear down their altars and smash their sacred pillars and burn their Asherim with fire, and you shall cut down the engraved images of their gods, and you shall obliterate their name from that place. (Deut. 12:1–3)
These are fearful instructions, and the New Testament reiterates the same zeal in war against all idols (2 Cor. 6:7; 10:3–6; Eph. 6:10–20). Armed with the sword of the Spirit, the church is to destroy the gods of the nations until Jesus is acknowledged as king over all. Vanquishing “Greek wisdom” is as much a fundamental goal in the church’s evangelistic mission as throwing down modern secularism is.
According to some Christians, the Bible forbids us to study Baalistic and Canaanite mythologies, and the Greek myths are more humane, more decent, less crude, and thus closer to Christian teaching than ancient Palestinian myths. Zeus is an idol, but by this argument, he is not as bad as Baal. This argument will be convincing only to those who have been reading expurgated versions of Greek and Roman mythology, of the kind one finds in Edith Hamilton’s popular and seductive books. In the past several decades, classical scholars have found that the literature and culture of archaic and classical Greece is profoundly indebted to the literature and language of the Ancient Near East, and from Greece these influences were passed on to early Rome. Greeks apparently learned how to write from the Phoenicians and adapted the Phoenician alphabet. Artistic styles and crafts were introduced from the East. Religious beliefs and practices were also transferred from the region around Palestine to the Greek peninsula. Temples apparently did not exist in Greece until the “orientalizing revolution” of the eighth century (750–650), and many of the rituals of Greek religion were borrowed from the same cultures.3 Borrowed from the East, Greek mythologies are quite as brutal and savage as the stories of Baal and Molech, as will become evident in our study of Hesiod’s Theogony (chapter 1). As the visions of Daniel 7 suggest, Greece and Rome were, like Assyria and Babylon before them, bestial powers.
The passages from Deuteronomy thus raise a sharp question for Christian study of the ancient classics. Given the fact that the classics are idolatrous through and through, why should we want to preserve them? Why should we keep alive the memory of Greek gods? Should we be studying the eploits of heroes who served these gods? Should we not instead throw all of Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Virgil nto one flaming heap in the town square? Wouldn’t Moses? A part of the answer to these questions is that Christians have no more moral duty to read and study Greek and Roman literature than ancient Israelites had a duty to study the myths of Baal and Asteroth. Nor should Christian schools or home schoolers think that they can have a good Christian education only if the “classics” are prominent in the curriculum.
The goal of Christian education is to train a child to be faithful in serving God and His kingdom in a calling, and certainly this goal can be achieved by a student who never cracks the cover of a Homeric epic. Given the appalling ignorance of the Bible among evangelical Christians today, mastering Scripture must be an overwhelming priority in all Christian education. If one must choose between studying Leviticus or Livy, Habakkuk or Homer, Acts or Aeschylus, the decision is, to my mind, perfectly evident, and the point holds even if the non-biblical literature were Christian. The genealogies of 1 Chronicles 1–9 are vastly more important to study than Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, or Dickens. But, of course, students and teachers are not always faced with a stark either/or choice. Assuming a student has a strong grounding in Scripture, there may be good reasons for taking up a study of other literature. And a few texts of Scripture demonstrate that it is not necessarily sinful for believers to study pagan literature. Daniel and his three friends learned the language and literature of the Chaldeans (Dan. 1:4), which undoubtedly focused on Chaldean mythology.
In the New Testament, Paul occasionally reveals that he knew some of the literature and philosophy of the Greeks and Romans. In Acts 17:28, he quotes a Greek poet, and some have suggested that the phrase “kicking against the goads” in Acts 26:14 comes from Aeschylus, though it might well have been a proverbial saying. In both cases, the context of these passages is important. Daniel learned Chaldean literature while in exile, and this helped to prepare him for a high profile position in an alien land. Paul quotes the Greek poets to the philosophers on Mars Hill as part of his effort to “win some” by becoming all things to all men. Both Daniel and Paul insisted that true insight and wisdom come from Yahweh, the God of Israel, not from Marduk or Apollo (see Dan. 2:28; 1 Cor. 2:6–16). Neither studied “the classics” in order to discover guidance and wisdom for a godly life. They used their knowledge of pagan literature to achieve the purposes of God. Daniel and Paul turned the weapons of Babylon and Greece against their makers, and thus Babylon and Greece fell into the pit they had dug (Ps. 7:16). God, in short, calls us to war against the idols, but the Bible teaches a variety of strategies and tactics in war. The shrines of the Canaanites were to be utterly destroyed, and the gold and silver of their idols was not to be used, “for it is an abomination” (Deut. 7:25). Yet when the Israelites left Egypt, they received gold and silver from the Egyptians (Exod. 12:35–36), and this gold and silver was used to build the tabernacle at Sinai. Later, David gathered the plunder from his wars with the Philistines and others and gave it to Solomon to build the temple (1 Chr. 22:6–16). Citing these biblical examples, St. Augustine concluded that the church likewise was permitted to “plunder the Egyptians,” using the achievements of pagan society to construct God’s house and city. This is much easier to do with technology than with literature and philosophy. Whether or not the computer or the software was invented by a Christian, Christians can use computers for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom. Plundering ideas is trickier, since the ideas must simultaneously be plundered and purged, received and rejected. With ideas and literature, the confrontation between the Bible and paganism will be more intense, but with great care and wisdom, we can plunder even pagan literature and make it work for us. As Proverbs says, the wealth of the wicked is stored up for the righteous (Prov. 13:22).
More specifically, pagan literature can be used as a weapon for Christian warfare because it gives insight into the works and ways of the enemy. Greek poets and philosophers are enemies of Christ and His church, and they are not remote enemies. The Heroic Age ended some three thousand years ago, but our inner cities, our television and movie screens, and our courtrooms are filled with characters who live by the creed of Achilles. To combat these enemies effectively, it helps to know them from the inside, and literature gives us unique insight into the unbelieving heart.
Moreover, by giving us a glimpse of a world largely untouched by God’s truth, Greek and Roman literature help us identify the effect that the gospel has had on the world. Reading Greek and Roman literature, for example, highlights the difference between a world formed by polytheism and a world that worships the One Living God. This theological disagreement has enormous practical significance, but let me highlight one aspect. If the gods are as the Greek myths depict them, then, as Hesiod’s work suggests, warfare and conflict are the ultimate reality. Gods and goddesses compete and fight with one another, promoting the good of their favorites and opposing their enemies among men. Peace is inherently impossible in a polytheistic world. This, I will suggest, is responsible for the despair that C. S. Lewis said pervades the Homeric epics. Homer vividly depicts the horror and waste of war (as well as its glories and beauties), but he can see no way of life other than war. How could he? If the gods themselves are at war, how can we expect peace on earth— ever?
In a polytheistic world, a semblance of peace can be established in one of two ways. On the one hand, one god might be powerful enough to force the others into submission. But here cosmic war is replaced by cosmic tyranny; power flows to the one with the biggest gun. On the other hand, in Homeric epic, and even more in Virgil’s Aeneid, Fate comes to the fore as the ruling force, and this gives some unity and harmony to the world. Individual gods might be at war, but Fate calmly works out the destiny of each man. But Fate is a mysterious, unapproachable, impersonal force. No one prays to fate or worships it (him). Classical epic thus leaves us with three fundamental theological options: Heaven rings with the petty squabbling of adolescent gods, which means the world is not under control at all, or heaven and earth are ruled by a heavenly Führer, or things are governed by an impersonal and faceless power that grinds along, indifferent to humanity or justice. Take your pick: chaos, totalitarianism, or determinism. Whichever you choose, the world is a pretty grim place, with no hope for redemption. Homer and Virgil powerfully render this world, and thus they give us insight into the horror of life under the cruel gods.
By contrast, the Bible proclaimed from the beginning that there is one God, Yahweh, who created the world good and rules all things. Violence and evil are not written into the fabric of creation but are due to sin and His righteous judgment on sin, and therefore there is hope of redemption from evil. Ultimate reality is not a gaggle of gods, nor an autocrat, nor an impersonal Fate. Rather, ultimate reality is Three Persons in an eternal communion of love. Above us is a God who is love, whose love overflows in creating a world He did not need and in redeeming a world that had turned from Him. Heaven is not a battlefield or a prison; it is a dance hall filled with song. And, one day, earth will join in. In a similar way, Greek and Roman literature highlight by way of contrast the Christian view of creativity and culture (Hesiod); the hero and heroism (Homer and Virgil); the relation of city and family (Aeschylus); fate, sin, and responsibility (Sophocles); the conflict of reason and emotion (Euripides); and the social effects of philosophical skepticism (Aristophanes). None of these poems or plays teach the wisdom of Christ in a direct way. Rather, by wrestling to evaluate these books biblically, we are led to discover biblical truth that we might otherwise have overlooked. Pagan literature can, rightly used, give us an important entry into the mind and culture of fallen humanity, and even sharpen our understanding of the Christian worldview. Given that our world has abandoned the Christian foundations of our civilization, we will increasingly be confronted with a variety of paganism. Modern paganism is not the same as ancient paganism, but pagan practices and habits of thought and life are being revived. Studying this literature can make us more aware of our enemies’ habits and prepare us to wage skillful and victorious war against them. What we should refuse to do is embrace our enemies as friends.
By this argument, studying the mythologies of India, Africa, China, or American Indians would serve as well. Yet, the intended audience of this book lives in a civilization that has been shaped more by stories from Greece and Rome than by the Bhagavad Gita or the tribal mythologies studied by anthropologists. In addition to the “negative” use of Greco-Roman literature described above, then, there is a more “positive” use: Knowledge of the classics is necessary to understand contemporary thought and culture. Freud formulated a psychological theory using the Oedipus myth; the contemporary moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has revived a version of the “virtue ethics” found in Homer, Plato, and Aristotle; James Joyce’s Ulysses follows the Odyssey in some detail, with the not insignificant difference that it is set in Dublin rather than the islands of Greece. If we want to have a sense of our historical situation, it will help to do some grappling with the classics.
Knowledge of Greek and Roman literature is, moreover, important to appreciate fully the literature and culture of the Christian West. Shakespeare is full of classical allusions, as are Dante, Spencer, and Milton, and a knowledge of Greek and Roman literature enhances our understanding and enjoyment of this later literature. Sometimes, the allusions are for comic effect, as when Shakespeare in Troilus and Creseida shows us the Homeric heroes sitting around discussing whether they will come off well when Homer writes his epic. Watching the changing interpretations of classical literature provides a window into the changes in the mentality of Western writers and thinkers. Tennyson’s Ulysses describes an aging but very Victorian Odysseus who itches to go on another voyage, for “’tis not too late to seek a newer world.” His poem tells us a great deal about Tennyson and his age but very little about Homer’s Odysseus, who was not a restless adventurer but a displaced homebody. W. H. Auden’s haunting poem Achilles’ Shield uses a Homeric motif to explore the horrors of modern war and totalitarianism. A reader with no knowledge of Homer will miss most of the point of these poems.
Of course, students can gain general knowledge of the stories of ancient Greece and Rome by reading adaptions and summaries. For many students, this kind of exposure will be sufficient, and far safer than detailed treatment of the works themselves. As James Jordan has said, pagan literature “can be a kind of intellectual pornography, since the sinful mind of man quite naturally resonates to the themes in Greek and Roman literature.”
On Reading Homer
I have argued that it is permissible for Christians to study ancient pagan literature, provided it is done within a sound biblical framework and is intended to equip the student to serve God more faithfully. This, of course, raises questions about how it is to be done. Like many things, the best way to explain how to read is to offer a reading, and thus Heroes of the City of Man as a whole provides my fuller answer to these questions, but here I will make some sketchy introductory comments.
As an entry into the discussion, let me indulge for a few moments in a venerable authorial practice: answering a critic. Two years ago, Canon Press published my study of Shakespeare, Brightest Heaven of Invention. In the introduction to that book, I suggested that Christians can begin to grasp extrabiblical literature by fitting these stories into the “master story” the Bible tells. As medieval writers put it, the Bible is the “epitome” of all books, containing a key to all other books and stories. Tragedies, specifically, are “fall stories,” similar to the biblical stories in Genesis 3 or 1 Samuel 13–15, while comedies are “redemption stories,” similar in structure to the overall redemptive narrative of the Bible. A reader can begin to discern the shape of a story by slotting characters and events into the pattern of biblical stories. All heroes may be compared to the true Hero, Jesus Christ; all damsels in distress are comparable to Christ’s Bride, the church; all rescues are acts of salvation; all weddings anticipate the feast of the Lamb; and all villains, serpent-like, spread their several varieties of poison.
Not everyone found this convincing or even helpful. In a review published in the January 1998 issue of First Things, Margaret Boerner, who teaches in the Humanities Program at Villanova University, suggested my approach was misleading, even dangerous. She complained of the disservice I rendered with my insistence “especially to inexperienced readers that [Shakespeare] was painting Christian allegory by the numbers.” She found my basic argument “muddled”: “If, as Christians believe, God has chosen to reveal Himself in the stories of the Old Testament and the Master Story that culminates in the New Testament, then it may be that real life is divinely arranged in the structures of a story, though that takes us into deep theological waters. But do we really want to say that it necessarily follows that all stories are divine? Are we really prepared to hold that there are no stories that do not explicitly and deliberately retell the Christ-event?”
Well, now. Boerner’s review is inaccurate in several respects. First, she misrepresents the intent of my discussion of the Bible’s master story, which was in part pedagogical. In Brightest Heaven of Invention, I compared learning new stories to learning a new language, in which we match up what we know with what we do not. Let me follow that analogy another step or two to clarify the point. No two languages, of course, are completely identical. Flash cards will say the Hebrew word dabar means word, but in the Old Testament dabar is also used where we would use the English word thing. Word and dabar, as linguists would say, do not have the same “range of meaning.” Vocabularies thus do not match up in a one-to-one manner. Structurally, too, languages cannot be superimposed on one another. Even similar languages like Greek and Latin diverge in many ways. Only the beginning student of Hebrew automatically substitutes word whenever he
sees dabar; only the neophyte Greek scholar thinks a noun in the dative case is always an indirect object. Despite these complexities, it would be a foolish teacher who failed to build a bridge from the known language to the unknown.
Writing an introduction to Shakespeare for Christian students, I worked from known stories to unknown. Boerner no doubt has great facility with Shakespeare, but his plays are forbidding to many. By coming to Shakespeare’s plays with the structure and imagery of the Bible in mind, Christian readers can begin to find their way through the plays without feeling they are in a completely alien world. Once they set foot on the shores of Elizabethan drama, they will find other flora and fauna—borrowings from classical mythology, ancient history, British history, Renaissance science, and Elizabethan folklore. Building a pedagogical bridge from the Bible to Shakespeare does not mean the countries are the same. If they were, there would be no need for the bridge in the first place. But without some bridge, timid students will not attempt the treacherous passage to Shakespeare at all. My suggestion that Shakespeare’s plays fit into a “master story” was thus an effort to help precisely those inexperienced readers that Boerner thinks will be damaged by my book. There is more to the story than pedagogy, however.
Though Shakespeare is not John Bunyan, the imaginative universe in which he operated was infused with Christian imagery, clipped and pasted from the Bible, medieval exegesis of Scripture, the church fathers, and the liturgy of the Church of England. As E. M. W. Tillyard shows in his classic little book, The Elizabethan World Picture,4 Shakespeare, along with other Elizabethan poets and writers, represents the world as a great chain of being, or, better, a network of chains of beings. Each realm of the universe—the planets, the animal kingdom, the plant world, the human commonwealth— has a proper hierarchical order, and each hierarchy mirrors the others. This conception of the world provided poets with a readily available system of imagery and symbolism.
The lion, as king of beasts, is a fitting symbol of the king of the commonwealth, and the sun, as chief among planets, is comparable to the eagle, most noble among birds. Disorder in the commonwealth is, by the same principles, described as disorder among the planets or in nature. Hence, the Duke of Burgundy in Act 5 of Henry V laments the effects of war on France, “the best garden of the world,” and Hamlet expresses his disgust with life by describing Denmark as “an unweeded garden.” For an Elizabethan, this world picture was not merely literary but rooted in theology and Scripture.
As Tillyard says, English poets inherited and simplified a medieval world picture that was “solidly theocentric” and derived from “an amalgam of Plato and the Old Testament.” For purely historical reasons, then, it is appropriate to interpret Shakespeare in the light of Scriptural patterns of imagery and plot.5 An Elizabethan hearing “garden” references would, among other things, think of Eden.
Some of Boerner’s specific criticisms are misleading. She attributes to me, for instance, the view that Henry V is a “Christ figure.” On the one hand, this is strict historical interpretation.
Virtually every medieval king was considered a Christ figure,6 and Shakespeare’s Henry explicitly associates himself with this tradition in Act 1: “I am a Christian king,” he tells the French embassy. On the other hand, far from suggesting this Henry-as-Christ-figure provides a complete interpretation of the play, most of my chapter on Henry V sought to demonstrate that Shakespeare was profoundly suspicious of Henry’s French campaigns. The “allegorical” suggestion that Henry is a “Christ figure,” then, provides ironic and even tragic background for an account of very unchristian wars. The patriotic melody on the surface of the play is met by a skeptical counter-melody that checks and, in the end, overwhelms the first.7
Further and more generally, I am hardly the first writer to suggest the presence of “archetypal” patterns and symbolisms running throughout apparently unrelated works.8 Understanding literature, even the most self-consciously allegorical literature, is never as simple as finding direct correspondences between this and that. At the same time, stories, scenes, motifs, and images have, as Boerner would surely agree, family resemblances that make comparison a fruitful exercise. I would not, for example, argue that there is a direct literary connection between the disciples sleeping in Gethsemane and the astonishing failure of Beowulf ’s men to wake up during the hero’s clamorous battle with Grendel. Yet, drowsiness at the peak of battle, whether we are talking about warriors or disciples, symbolizes a moral sluggishness, which in turn highlights the hero’s strenuous heroism. Taking note of these parallels in no way implies the author of Beowulf is explicitly and deliberately writing allegory (though there are in fact some indications that he was). But a pox on defensive nit-picking! Despite distortions, Boerner’s fundamental charge is accurate: What she seems particularly to dislike in my book was my effort to interpret Shakespeare theologically. As she suspected, I do see Christ everywhere and in everything, as the One in Whom all things, including Western literature, consist. Shakespeare’s plays are among the “all things” that Paul says are created “for Christ” (Col. 1:16–17). If there is offense in taking Paul quite literally and pressing his global affirmation into crannies of the academy that would rather not hear from an apostle, it is an offense for which I cannot apologize. Pressing Paul’s point is a straightforward and unavoidable demand of discipleship.
But exactly how is Shakespeare “for Christ”?—aye, there’s the rub. And if a Shakespeare “for Christ” irritates, how much more Homer?
Thus, we return to the present book, which, even without Boerner’s review, would demand that the issues raised in Brightest Heaven be revisited. If the argument that Shakespeare can be read through the filter of the Bible is “muddled,” then certainly an effort to read Homer through a biblical framework is infinitely more so. Shakespeare presumably had read the Bible and was familiar with the liturgy of the Church of England. We thus begin with the possibility that he is alluding to biblical patterns when he has Hamlet’s ghost call Claudius a “serpent” or that he has the Eucharist in view when Petruchio refuses to let his shrewish bride eat at his table. Those interpretations may not be convincing, and they may not be true, but they are possible. When Homer has Penelope call the suitors “vipers,” the argument has leaped to the far side of muddle: By what logic can that imagery and these stories be examined in the light of the “master story” of Scripture? Had Homer read Moses?
Our Stories and the Story of God
Several sorts of arguments can be made for the approach to ancient pagan literature found in Heroes of the City of Man. As in Brightest Heaven, my goal is in part pedagogical. I hope to make ancient literature more accessible to Christian students by pointing out parallels with the Bible. Thus, I compare Hesiod’s account of the origin of the world with that of Genesis; I explain Greek sacrifice by reference to Leviticus; I interpret the hospitality theme in the Odyssey in the light of a theology of food and feasting; I call Odysseus’s unveiling to the suitors an “apocalypse”; when I describe Penelope as a patient and faithful bride awaiting the return of her husband, I intend for readers to catch the biblical resonances. Yet, this pedagogy is not a mere “teaching device,” but is grounded in theological and historical considerations. Let me develop each of these in turn. Again, it will be helpful to begin with one of Boerner’s criticisms. She claims that I confused “the absolutely hypothetical nature of fiction and the freedom of creation granted to human imagination with what Leithart undoubtedly holds is the true story of God’s actions in history.” But I do not confuse the two; instead, I simply deny that the human imagination is capable of anything “absolutely hypothetical” or that we have an absolute freedom in creation.
Below I develop a theological argument for that conclusion, but it is important to see that this theological argument seeks to answer a question raised by literature, a question that has occupied Christian scholars such as Northrop Frye and C. S. Lewis, as well as non-Christian thinkers like Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. That question concerns the odd recurrence of plots, patterns of imagery, and characters in stories that originate in widely different places and times— the question of the “archetype.” To take one example: The world over, stories with happy endings end with weddings.
“They lived happily ever after” is almost invariably preceded by “They were married.” Why? To say “Weddings are happy occasions” is not sufficient, for many other things (getting a new job, watching a winter sunset, throwing a toddler in the air—and catching him) can also be happy occasions. To say that it reflects our wish for a better world merely raises the further questions of why humans are so incorrigibly wishful and why marriages should so frequently symbolize this wishfulness. Explaining this phenomenon in terms of the dynamics of marriage—the union of “opposites,” the beginning of a new home, and so on—gets us closer to a real explanation, but we still want to ask why our imaginative search for harmony and new life is so often symbolized in this manner rather than another. The point can be made from a different angle: Try to imagine a better happy ending than a wedding. I believe we find imaginative satisfaction in stories that end with weddings because we live in a world that will end with a wedding. The Bible tells the story of history, a story that is mysteriously “built into” the structure of our minds and practices, so that even writers who resist this story cannot help but leave traces of it—faint and distorted as they may be—on every page.
Two lines of argument support this. First, there is the question of creativity. Human creativity is never the creativity of the Creator but always that of a creature. Though it is not quite right to say this places “limits” on our creativity, it does mean that we never produce anything that is absolutely unprecedented. Second, since God has revealed Himself in a particular story, and since His character is inescapably known to all creatures, this story is likewise inescapably known. Let me unpack these two arguments a bit. The Bible has an exalted view of human creativity, and therefore of the human imagination. In Genesis 1:26–28, we learn that the Lord made Adam and Eve in His image and after His likeness. Commonly, the image of God in man is described in terms of “moral” attributes such as righteousness and holiness, or by reference to “rational” faculties such as the ability to reason and to will freely. Up to Genesis 1:26, however, God has revealed Himself as a Speaker and a Maker, and thus the immediate significance of being made His “image” is that Adam and Eve were created to speak and make. Adam’s first task, significantly, is to name the animals (using speech to “make” a classification system—as God did during the creation week), and when Eve is born from his side, he composes a romantic poem. To be the image of God is to be a creative speaker and producer of “cultural” products— poems and speeches, houses and bridges, computers and combustion engines.
To say that being God’s image means being a maker is not precise enough. Animals, after all, make things: beavers build dams, wasps make nests, rabbits dig labyrinthine warrens. This suggests that all animate creatures reflect God’s creativity to some degree. Yet, animal “creativity” is purely functional, instinctual, and repetitive; they make things to meet the needs of survival, and their “creations” are always basically the same. Except in Narnia, beaver homes are not cozy bungalows; there is no Frank Lloyd Wright in the wasp community to introduce more environmentally sensitive architectural fashions; rabbits live in precisely the kind of cold and dark hovels that hobbits avoid. God, by contrast, created a world for which He had no need. He was perfectly God, and perfectly content, before the world was. Freely and in sheer love and goodness, He made something different from Himself. His making was not functional or repetitive or necessary for His survival as God. Rather, God’s creativity is shown in creating a profusion of unnecessary things that display an unnecessary beauty—unnecessary things like the wild waste of color on tropical birds, like the unearthly softness of chinchilla fur, like you and me.
The creativity of God’s images is like that. To be sure, much human creativity is expended to help us survive or to make survival more efficient and comfortable. But only humans create as God does. Only humans paint and draw for no other reason than to produce paintings and drawings; only humans make instruments and organize sound into music that hails men’s souls from their bodies; only humans build homes not only for function but for pleasure and beauty. The difference between human and animal making goes to the simplest forms of human creativity: As Samuel Johnson said, no beast is a cook. None of this is “necessary” to sheer bodily survival. But precisely these extravagances make us human. So, human creativity is real and it is profoundly creative.
Yet, it is always the creativity of a creature, who is completely dependent upon the creating Spirit of God for his every breath. The Bible makes it clear that nothing a creature imagines or produces is “absolutely hypothetical” or absolutely free. Instead, Paul teaches that “of Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Rom. 11:36). The Lord rules and brings into being every created thing and every event of history, and because they ultimately come from Him, every thing and every event bears the stamp of His character.
God’s character is manifested not only in the things He directly created, but also in things that human beings have made. Even what evil men and women produce cannot escape His comprehensive government. He reveals His delicate glory in the lilies and in the detailed brushwork of a van Eyck; His majesty in mountains and in the vertiginous heights of a cathedral ceiling; and His wrath in the destructiveness of a hurricane and in the horrors of war and civil strife. He has created us so we can create worlds in our imagination and construct them in words and paint and stone, but we imagine and construct those worlds within a world that is what the Bible says it is. We can imagine and write about a world where God is not, but this imagining and writing reveals the God who is.
God’s sovereign rule as Creator does not form a limit on human creativity. On the contrary, we are creative only because the Creator is at work in us, only because “of Him and through Him and to Him are all things.” In fact, far from imposing a limit on human creativity, God’s inexhaustible creativity implies that human beings are in important respects inexhaustibly creative as well. Despite our limitations in space, time, and ability, God’s infinite creativity is expressed in many ways through ours. Think of numbers. Even if I write down numbers from now until the day I die, twenty-four hours a day, I will never reach the end of the sequence.
On the day I die, any ten-year-old could write down a number that I have never thought of, much less written. This may not seem like a good example of human creativity, since we often think of numbers as being “out there” ready to be discovered or named. That is debatable, but let me suggest another example: There is no limit to the ways I can arrange letters into words and words into meaningful sentences. With a few moments’ reflection, I can create a sentence that no one has ever said or written in the history of the world (e.g., “My father is cool” or “His nose hairs make him especially handsome”). And I can keep doing that every day until I die and never empty the tank filled with sentences that might be written.
Though it is not correct to think of God’s work as a limit on human creativity, the fact that we are creatures means that our creativity is the creativity of a created being, rather than the creativity of a Creator. And that means not only that our creativity is dependent upon His, but also that nothing we create is absolutely original. I can write a number that not even Albert Einstein thought of, but I can never think of or write a number that God has not thought of. I can write a sentence that never crossed Shakespeare’s mind, but I will never utter a sentence that God does not know before it is on my tongue. God knows not only the number I write and the sentence I utter before I write and utter, but He knows and has eternally planned that I will write or utter it. Yet for all that, because of all that, my utterances and writings and makings produce something new. This is what it means to be a creative creature.
So much for the first thread of theological argument. I have argued that, in general, human creativity is not “absolutely free” but always preceded by and dependent upon God’s creativity. This helps to explain why storytellers from the beginning of time seem continually to be repeating the same stories, though repeating them differently. It is because we are creatures who image our Creator in all we say and write and make. The second thread has to do with stories more specifically. Part of our inescapable imaging of God lies in the fact that the stories we tell inevitably reflect the story that God is telling in the history of the world. A number of points need to be considered to demonstrate this conclusion.
First, the Bible teaches that God reveals His character in creation, in history, and in Scripture. If we wish to know God, we have to seek Him as He has revealed Himself through these media. We cannot know God by peeking “behind” the screen of history and Scripture; we come to know Him through His words and works. History, Scripture, and creation are the “books” of God, and if we would know Him we must open the books. There is a fuller revelation in one or another of God’s books. For example, we know about God’s provision in Christ from Scripture rather than from creation.
Yet it is the same God who writes to us in each. Each book, in fact, is large enough to include the others. If we open God’s book of creation, we realize that the creation is not static but in motion, that creation has a history; thus God’s revelation in creation includes His revelation in history. And since Scripture exists in history, it too forms a chapter in God’s books of creation and history. History is the story of God’s actions, which manifest His character, and Scripture is largely a record of those actions, that story.
Above, I said that we cannot speak, make, or act without imaging God. Now, we need to add that the God imaged in our speaking and making is not some abstract and unknown character, some God-in-general, but the God revealed in the story revealed in creation, history, and Scripture. If we cannot help but manifest God’s character in our creations (including our story-telling), and if the character of God manifested in our creations is known through a story, it follows that we cannot help but retell His stories in our own. God’s story tells of a good creation, marred by a rebellion and a curse, which is overcome by the coming of a Redeemer to restore the world. All other stories are contained in that basic story. This does not at all mean that every writer is selfconsciously and deliberately writing Christian allegory. It means that, every writer tells stories that reflect in some way God’s story.
1. God reveals His character in the story of history and Scripture.
2. We image God’s character in all we make and do, including our artistic creations.
3. Since God’s character is known by a story, we image God’s story in all we do.
4. Therefore, our artistic creations image God’s story.
5. Therefore, our stories reflect God’s story.
There is thus some analogy between writing and other arts. A painter may wish to rebel against the created realities of light and color and paint, but those same created realities prevent his rebellion from ever being total. His rebellion is constrained by the materials he works with. A composer may wish to overthrow the created realities of sound, but those created realities oppose him. With writing, language itself provides some constraint; a poet who completely rebels against linguistic rules will be incomprehensible, and thus not a poet at all. Yet, writing is somewhat different, since the materials a writer works with exist largely within his imagination; the novelist does not deal with physical realities like paint and sound waves. Yet because of the way God created and governs the world, and because knowledge of the Creator and Governor of the world is inescapable, the rebellion of the imaginative writer is constrained. Somewhere, even in the stories of the most self-consciously rebellious storyteller, God’s story shines through.
Hesiod, Homer, and Moses
Above, I offered theological arguments in favor of a Christian reading of ancient pagan literature. In addition, various historical arguments can be advanced. The first arises from a biblical understanding of ancient history. The stories, imagery, and symbols of ancient literature can be understood from the viewpoint of Scripture because those stories and images were influenced by knowledge of the events recorded in Scripture. God promised Adam that He would send the seed of the woman to deliver humanity from the serpent, and from Adam that promise passed from generation to generation until the flood. Along the way, the story was distorted and half-forgotten, but the cultural memory of the promise at Eden’s gate was never erased. After the flood, God reiterated His promises to Noah, and as the head of a new human race, Noah also passed on the promises of God to his sons, and they to theirs. These divine promises form the basis of the story of Scripture, and in various distorted forms they find their way into mythologies from around the world.9 If Genesis is what Christians say it is, an accurate record of the ancient world, then all the peoples of the ancient world necessarily had at least indirect contact with Adam and/or Noah and with the stories of Eden and the flood.10 Myths concerning a magical tree guarded by a serpent are recollections of Eden, Pandora is a distorted Eve, and hope for a delivering Hero was inspired by God’s promise of the serpent-crushing Seed.
A second set of historical arguments has to do with the way Christians in the past have dealt with the inheritance of the pagan classics. Though it is often thought that the Renaissance recovered classical learning, much of this learning remained available during the Christian Middle Ages. In The Discarded Image, C. S. Lewis provides an excellent summary of the medieval debt to classical philosophy, cosmology, and literature, and many of the stories told in the medieval Christian world were derived from the legends of the pagan tribes of northern Europe. Poets and scholars combined Christian and pagan elements in a variety of ways, but in many cases Christians were clearly making an effort to set Greco- Roman and other pagan stories into a biblical framework.
A good illustration of the medieval Christianization of Greek stories is the treatment of Achilles. In Dante’s Inferno, Achilles appears in Canto V among the lustful, with Dido, Cleopatra, and Helen. Virgil points him out to the pilgrim: “See great Achilles yonder, who warred with love, and that war was his last.” Readers of Homer’s Iliad will be perplexed. Achilles’ great sin in the Iliad is not lust but wrath.
Yet, Dante’s treatment is typical of the Medieval interpretations of Achilles. Sexual passion was more a key to his life and death than his rage. The Ilias Latina, a Latin summary of Homer’s epic, was the main medieval source for the story of the Iliad, and this document describes how Achilles is led to act badly because he is desperately in love with his war since he refuses to return Chryseis out of passion. Medieval writers also highlighted Achilles’ love for Polyxena, a part of the Trojan War myth not found in Homer. Polyxena was daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. She was watering horses at the well where Achilles killed Troilus, one of Priam’s sons, and she caught Achilles’ eye. According to one version of the story, she persuaded Achilles to switch to the Trojan side by promising to be Achilles’ slave. According to another version, Achilles agreed to abandon the Greeks and fight for the Trojans so that he could have Polyxena. Negotiations were to be conducted in the temple of Apollo, but Paris was hiding behind the god’s statue, and shot Achilles in the heel with an arrow as he entered the temple. Lust led directly to Achilles’ death. For medievals, the moral of the Iliad is the same as the myth of Pandora: Women are dangerous, dangerous, dangerous, and they will sap your fighting spirit.
A remarkable blending of classical and biblical stories is found in the twelfth-century “Roman de Troie” of Benoit de Sainte-Maure, which has Achilles himself refer to Samson, David, and Solomon as examples of men who fell through lust. Another text recasts the story of Achilles and Polyxena so that it matches the story of Samson and Delilah:
When Polyxena was married to Achilles who loved her exceedingly, she got a message from King Priam her father or Hekabe her mother, saying, “We believe that because you must grieve so greatly for your youthful brother [Hector], whom none dared attack, you must also find out for us the secret place in which Achilles can be breached with steel; and when he is dead and your brother’s death is avenged, we will be able to give you to a better husband who is our equal.” When Polyxena heard this, she took Achilles in her arms and charmingly challenged him to show her the secret place where he could be harmed by steel; and because there is nothing that woman cannot force men to confess when their dear spouses hold them, he showed her the secret place in the tendon of his heel where he could be harmed by steel. When Polyxena learned this, she told it to her parents, who subsequently pretended to be having a service in the temple of Apollo . . . and asked Achilles to join them at the service along with Polyxena their daughter.11
Medieval interpretations of the classics are not always commendable and frequently laughable. Using the Iliad as a morality tale against sexual sin hardly counts as a fair interpretation of Homer’s epic, to put it delicately. Medieval Christians often failed to understand pagan literature on its own terms but instead blithely assumed that it explicitly taught Christian truth.12 However clumsy their efforts, they realized, rightly, that there are only two alternatives to fitting pagan stories into the biblical story: First, fitting the biblical story into pagan stories or, second, fitting both into some other story. And they recognized, again rightly, that if the Bible was not the “master story,” another story would master the Bible.
Throughout her history, the church’s settled conviction has been that the devil has no stories. Satan is not creative but can only parody and ape and distort and misshape the true story. Even the stories that the devil appears to have are not properly his. Hesiod and Homer, Aeschylus and Aristophanes, as much as Moses and Samuel, are “for Christ.” We must exercise great care and pray for wisdom in our study of this literature. We must never embrace enemies as friends or treat “Greek wisdom” as sound and true. Yet, it is fully within the rights of Christians, to whom, in Christ, belong “all things” (1 Cor. 3:21–23), to plunder these stories and make what use of them we can. Because some treasures of Athens, purged with fire, may, like the gold of Egypt, finally adorn Jerusalem.
1 Subtitled The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (New York: Free Press, 1998).
2 Religion in the Ancient Greek City (trans. Paul Cartledge; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 92. See also Francois de Polignac, Cults, Territory, and the Origins of the Greek City-State (trans. Janet Lloyd; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City: A Study of the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1980). An excellent brief summary is found in Christine Sourvinou-Inwood, “What is Polis Religion?” in Oswyn Murray and Simon Price, eds., The Greek City: From Homer to Alexander (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).
3 For a brief but heavily documented study of this, see Walter Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age (trans. Margaret E. Pinder and Walter Burkert; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992). See also Oswyn Murray, Early Greece (2d ed.; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), ch. 6.
4 (New York: Vintage Books, n.d.).
5 On the medieval picture, see C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,  1995). On Shakespeare’s use of biblical imagery, see, for example, Nasseb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare’s History Plays (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989).
6 On this, see the wonderful study of Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957).
7 I first encountered this interpretation in Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (2 vols.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 1.215–268. See also Anthony Brennan, Henry V (Twayne’s New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare #16; New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992).
8 “Archetypal criticism” is, in fact, one of the schools of modern literary criticism. For a sophisticated discussion of this, linking Western literature to Scriptural patterns of imagery, see Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1982).
9 On comparative mythology, see the works of Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell. Despite the flaws of Campbell’s work especially, he has demonstrated the existence of common themes throughout world mythology.
10 I have dealt with this theme at greater length in an essay, “Did Plato Read Moses?” which is available from Biblical Horizons, P.O. Box 1096, Niceville, Florida, 32588.
11 Quoted in Katherine Callen King, Achilles: Paradigms of the War Hero from Homer to the Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), pp. 203–204.
12 Thus, for example, one medieval commentator interpreted a reference to the “poets” in Cato’s Dystics as a reference to “Holy Scripture.” This example comes from a lecture by Louis Perraud, who teaches classics at the University of Idaho.