Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Wisdom of the Ancients, and the wit / Of Modern Man

"'Gnothi seauton [know thyself],' despite Socrates' creative use of the phrase, simply means 'I'm a god, you're not.'"
-James Redfield, alluding to the famous inscription on Apollo's temple at Delphi in response to a question on the sentiment of Iliad V.440-442,which, for those of you with "less Greek," Pope has thus:

"O son of Tydeus, cease! be wise and see
How vast the difference of the Gods and thee!
Distance immense! between the pow'rs that shine
Above, eternal, deathless, and divine,
And mortal man! a wretch of humble birth,
A short-lived reptile in the dust of earth."

When asked whether any ancient Greek was known to have climbed the actual Mount Olympus in order to find out if there were really any gods up there, my professor answered thusly:
"The Greeks didn't climb mountains; they were much more sensible than that."

Saturday, April 26, 2008 multi pseudoprophetae sugent

It is unfortunately more often sobering than inspiring to peer as a learned Christian into the world of common spirituality; and yet we must guard our reactions from despair with the knowledge that the lowly ones of every age have always been more susceptible to the seductions of folly, just as the enticements of knowledge have been more often injurious to the high. From the very beginnings of the church, as the letters of Paul attest, Christian communities have felt the pull of strange gospels, laced by their charismatic preachers with both worldliness and exoticism, and we would be vain to think that in our western world, where the heirs of the apostolic witness, if we may not call them any longer witnesses themselves to that gospel, have grown slothful, and where the one use of the Christianized state, which is the tighter control of all preaching contrary to the gospel, has given way to the triumphant banners of secularism; in this world of ours, we would be vain to think ourselves unsullied, and the uninhibited spread and undeserving influence of false Christianities of various kinds should not alarm us with the shock of surprise, but rather the terrible recognition of disaster. For my part, I do not think I am enough exposed to these things; my eyes are too often turned down upon the page to look about me. Yet even the humble scholar does not remain forever aloof, although he feel the pains of the age more as pinches than an oppressive burden's weight. I felt such a pinch over my spring break, when, as I talked with a younger cousin of mine, she said offhand, though she could not recall the details, that her youth pastor had told them that the world was going to end in a few years, and given them details of the ending; I am remorseful still that I did not write a little note for her to give him, saying only "Matthew 24:36." Of such a teacher is it truly spoken, --or if he is a helpless fool, the teachers teacher-- "It cannot be avoided that there will be cause for stumbling. But woe to him through whom such causes come. It would be better for him if a millstone were hung about his neck, and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to stumble." (Luke 27:1-3).

Similarly today, following a link from the inestimable Jim West, I was led to this blog post, and the lengthy, but I think worthwhile, article it discusses. I think it will be obvious to those of you who take the time to read it why the ruminations of a secular journalist should have inspired such fierce declamation from this page --until I have some pulpit I shall be restrained to such inspired impotences as these. But I found it more unsettling as I read that the self-assured detachment of cynicism which the author expressed was far more near to me than utterances of his subjects, who all felt they were Christians. Let us credit him some for his rhetoric, however much I might loathe the aesthetic that governs such pieces, and remember that he writes for Rolling Stone; but let it also warn all of us who are of a class with the author and Christians as well, that if it is true that both we ourselves and the people he described are indeed new creatures in Christ, we ought neither to find them so alien to us, nor feel the comfort of kinship more easily in a thing bound by death.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Athanasius, Napoleon, Milton

Brant Pitre posted on his blog Singing in the Reign the other day a long quote from none other than Napoleon concerning Christ's supremacy over all earthly rulers. It's quite worth reading, and certainly seems as unusual an opinion of the Christian faith as Napoleon is an unusual figure among great men. Yet upon reading it I was reminded of two passages, one from Athanasius, and one from Milton. The passage of Milton's, which only came to my mind because I am liable to be reminded of Milton by the loosest of connections, is from the sixth book of Paradise Lost, lines 746-779, and describes the Son as he finally takes action against the rebelling angels, and in the chariot out of Ezekiel no less; it is probably the finest poetic expression of the victorious Christ, albeit here victorious before the creation of the world rather than at its end:

"So said, he o'er his scepter bowing rose
From the right hand of Glory where he sat,
And the third sacred morn began to shine
Dawning through Heav'n; forth rushed with whirlwind sound
The chariot of Paternal Deity,
Flashing thick flames, wheel within wheel undrawn,
Itself instinct with Spirit, but convoyed
By four Cherubic shapes; four faces each
Had wondrous; as with stars their bodies all
And wings were set with eyes, with eyes the wheels
Of beryl, and careering fires between;
Over their heads a crystal firmament
Whereon a sapphire throne, inlaid with pure
Amber, and colors of the show'ry arch.
He in celestial panoply all armed
Of radiant Urim, work divinely wrought,
Ascended; at his right hand Victory
Sat eagle-winged; beside him hung his bow
And quiver with three-bolted thunder stored,
And from about him fierce effusion rolled
Of smoke and bick'ring flame and sparkles dire;
Attended with ten thousand thousand saints
He onward came, far off his coming shone,
And twenty thousand (I their number heard)
Chariots of God, half on each hand, were seen:
He on the wings of Cherub rode sublime
On the crystalline sky in sapphire throned.
Illustrious far and wide but by his own
First seen; them unexpected joy surprised,
When the great ensign of Messiah blazed
Aloft by angels borne, his sign in Heav'n.
Under whose conduct Michael soon reduced
His army, circumfused on either wing,
Under the Head embodied all in one."

The other passage Mr. Pitre's post reminded me of, from Athanasius' De Incarnatione, a book I would recommend to all for its lucid profundity, is rather closer to the point. In refuting various objections of the pagans, the Alexandrian bishop rises to rather lofty rhetoric in describing the acheivement of Christ as opposed to others whom a non-Christian might propose to be like him (from De Incarnatione, section 50):

"Many before him have been kings and tyrants of the earth; history tells also of many among the Chaldeans and Egyptians and Indians who were wise men and magicians. But which of those, I do not say after his death, but while yet in this life, was ever able so far to prevail as to fill the whole world with his teaching and retrieve so great a multitude from the craven fear of idols, as many as our Savior has won over from idols to Himself? The Greek philosophers have compiled many works with persuasiveness and much skill in words; but what fruit have they to show for this such as has the cross of Christ? Their wise thoughts were persuasive enough until they died; yet even in their lifetime their seeming influence was counterbalanced by their rivalry with one another, for they were a jealous company and declaimed against each other. But the Word of God, by strangest paradox, teaching in meaner language, has put the choicest sophists in the shade, and by confounding their teachings and drawing all men to Himself He has filled His own assemblies. Moreover, and this is the marvelous thing, by going down as Man to death He has confounded all the sounding utterances of the wise men about the idols. For whose death ever drove out demons, or whose death did ever demons fear, save that of Christ? For where the Savior is named, there every demon is driven out. Again, who has ever so rid men of their natural passions that fornicators become chaste and murderers no longer wield the sword and those who formerly were craven cowards now bravely play the man? In a word, what persuaded the barbarians and heathen folk in every place to drop their madness and give heed to peace, save the faith of Christ and the sign of the cross?"

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Bart Ehrman and the Trustworthiness of the Ancients

I would direct you, gentle reader, although to my shame, to today's article in my hometown paper about a certain popular writer, of whom I would rather not confess that "we were nursed upon the selfsame hill." Although I can claim no personal experience with his writing, his general attitude towards orthodox Christianity, or more specifically, the earliest histories of it, which I have gleaned from various secondary encounters, is one of those persistent maladies of the contemporary mind whose popularity far outstrips the credence it is due. The insistent and oftentimes outrageous skepticism which has become the common attitude towards earliest Christianity not only among many scholarly circles (among whom I must say Mr. Ehrman is a legitimate figure), but more influentially among certain well-known instances of popular literature, is not only such a poison upon the modern popular conception but a misrepresentation of scholarly consensus as well. I am neither ready nor credentialed to give any great defense of my views or to critique another's, but I will say that, from what I have read on the subject, broadly defined, the question of with what sincerity the teaching of the New Testament as we have it now should be considered to reflect the teaching of Jesus is answered today either with the shouts of an overly critical skepticism or the plea of a reasoned credulity. I am no great scholar, but these seem to me to be the way the lines are drawn up, and I would hope always to support mediocritas before frenzy.

This opposition, in fact, is not a phenomenon confined only to early Christianity's small though vociferous corner of ancient scholarship. I read not too long ago a portion of a book (I have forgotten both the title and the author) which took up the debate of the veracity of Livy's narratives against certain scholars who suggested and more than suggested that most of his stories were his own inventions or at the very least those of his earlier sources like Fabius Pictor, whose history we have now lost. Now, although we most certainly cannot say confidently with Dante "Livio... che non erra," this author pointed out that the idea of any ancient historian simply making up whole stories does not work in traditionally oriented societies, which hold very strongly to certain memories of the past. Whether these memories actually reflect the past or not, the efforts of an historian whose narrative told an entirely different story would certainly encounter difficulty and opposition on these points. From the embellishment of stories, a common feature of nearly all the ancient literature we group together as 'history,' to their invention is a step far more easily presumed by the modern than executed by an ancient.

Even in poetry (with the exception of comedy) the invention of entire stories is rare, if not impossible, although it was a sort of slogan among philosophers that poets necessarily lie. The modern reader, who is accustomed to imagine every author like one of our novelists, has a great deal of trouble with the idea Sophocles did not come up with Oedipus, or that the story of the Odyssey, whoever wrote it, is in no way a sequel to the Iliad, although the poem may be usefully thought of that way, so long as one removes from their mind all thought of a public clamor to 'know what happened to all their favorite characters from the Iliad.' When so much of our modern literature, performed and otherwise, is dependent on 'interesting characters' and 'original stories' it should not at all surprise us that the ancient world, which assigned a far more circumscribed place to the virtue of originality, should perplex a modern sensibility in this way.

Although these broader concerns about the place of originality and factuality in the ancient world are certainly part of the same general debate, Bart Ehrman's popular books seem to be, from what I have picked up about him, less concerned with the broad view of things as the microscopic. His popular book Misquoting Jesus is a book about text criticism, one of the great homes of idle speculation in biblical studies since the nineteenth century, although it has also produced much of great value, and as such deals not so much with whether the New Testament reflects the teaching of Jesus but whether, in fact, we even have the real New Testament at our disposal. The success of books like these has far more to do with the ignorance of layfolk than any real scholarly debate. For example, as mentioned in this account of a debate between Ehrman and evangelical scholar Dan Wallace, one of Ehrman's real shock points for popular audiences seems to be that story of the woman caught in adultery in John's Gospel (7:53-8:11) is not found in the oldest manuscripts. The status of this story is nothing new to scholars, and by nothing new I mean that John Calvin mentions in his commentary on John; nor does its apocryphal status suddenly make the story irrelevant, anymore than something wise said in Sunday's sermon is irrelevant. Yet the idea that, so to speak, 'things aren't like they told you when you were a kid,' has a great pull on our modern society for whatever reason. David Wray, my professor this quarter in two classes on Vergil's poetry, commented the other day that one finds American literary scholars far more than those of other nations concerned with unreliable narrators in literature, and speculated that the idea of lies from a position of power plays a special anxiety in the American soul; he tied this anecdotally to things like Watergate. In any case I would say the same cultural anxiety, whatever its sources, lies at the heart of the popularity of books by people like Ehrman and Elaine Pagels. I will not meditate too long on this feature of our life today, although I find it more and more curious and distressing the more I think about it, but I do think it answers well why this sort of overzealous skepticism finds such a welcome ear in an American public whose tastes are normally quite traditional.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Sports and the Poet

From my tutor: not to become a Green or a Blue at the races, or to side with the Light-armored or Heavy-armored in the amphitheatre.

-Marcus Aurelius, Mediations I.5

Marcus Aurelius might not have approved of rooting for sports teams, and in a man who could see the wars by which he preserved Rome as so many vanities it is perhaps not unsurprising to find so dismissive a view of athletic fanhood. Certainly anyone who has seen me or any other deeply invested fan rooting for their team knows that it has the tendency to upset the equanimity of one's mind. Yet not all the ancients were Stoics like the somber Antonine, and many of them, especially the Greeks, found something very meaningful in athletic competition. In part this was because all the major Greek games were both international competitions, in that there were athletes from different city states competing against each other, and domestic competitions, in that only Greeks took part in major festivals like the Olympic, Nemean, or Pythian games, and so became an important unifying element in the culture of Greekness (Hellenism/Hellenicity). The games were also important religious festivals. Poets like Pindar and Bacchylides, the most distinguished writers of their day, were commissioned to celebrate the victors of these games in complex odes.

It would seem absurd today to establish so firm a link between athletics and the arts; since athletics is, at its essence, an exercise of the body, a society as insistently dualistic as our own has troubling admitting it to the life of the mind. After all, although Spike Lee might be seen at Knicks games, the enthusiasm of any artist or intellectual for sports is commonly portrayed more as a quirk of character or a humanizing element than as a genuine interest. Perhaps it is a residual puritanism to regard such affairs as petty amusements, perhaps it is the manufactured nature of sports in a capitalist-consumerist society. Yet the Greek Olympics were every bit as much an expression of their ruling class and ideology as our own Super Bowls and World Cups; one might hazard that their artists and intellectuals did not feel the same mad compulsion to rebel that ours do. In any case, it seems unfortunate that in a society where the importance of sports is as central as in any since the Greeks both the language and the poetic class lack the capability to produce that special delight, the Epinician (Victory) Ode. And yet...

Sketch for the first stanza of a Epinician Ode on the Jayhawks' Victory in the NCAA Tournament:

Like rain is Time to soak the firmness out
From godly grandeur, but the memory
Lives like slow fire in the mind of age,
Sprung from a hazy instant--near to me
The Muses wait with tinder, and more sage
Than all the rest, Apollo, crowned
With laurel; laurel too
Embrows you, Jayhawks, and it summons you
Above the humor of applauding sound,
--If Helicon permit me--and the shout
Gone up for adoration, out of time
Upon the current of my lofty rhyme.

Epinician Odes normally follow their introductory sentiments with a description of the victor, proceed to recount some myth, which more often than not is germane somehow to the victor or his city or family, and close with sentiments similar in bearing to those that opened the poem (here's a link to a serviceable translation of Pindar's most famous Olympian Ode) . Many English poets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Abraham Cowley most notably, wrote Odes in the style of Pindar, but none of them (so far as I know) wrote for actual athletic victors; I honestly don't even know what sort of organized athletic contest there was in England in that period. In any case, if English poetry is to be saved from the dungheap it seems content at present to reside in, why not start from a central feature of modern society which can cleanly and satisfyingly be patched onto an ancient and unquestionably classical tradition? I think I just might.