Louis Markos, “From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics”

Let’s start with the striking the cover art:  It features photos of statues of Achilles and Christ, with remarkably similar (suffering, eyes heavenward) visages. And, again without yet opening the book, there’s a C.S. Lewis quote on the back cover which might have served as an epitaph:  “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact.”

Now the book — like Gaul, I must say in this context — is divided into three parts:  Homer (with four chapters on the Iliad and three on the Odysssey, plus one on Hesiod); the Greek tragedians (two chapters on Aeschylus, three on Sophocles, and two on Euripides); and Virgil (an introductory chapter on Roman history and then five chapters on the Aeneid). Here’s what Professor Markos himself says (23) in describing the book: 

In the chapters themselves, the poetry of Homer, Virgil and the tragedians will be considered from two distinct but overlapping perspectives: (1) as literary works possessing their own separate integrity within the context of the cultures and the poets that produce them; (2) as proto-Christian works of almost prophetic power that point the way to Christ and glimmer with a faint but true light. Not all works considered point specifically to Jesus as the dying and rising God (most point instead to a virtue, ethos or dilemma that finds its full flowering and expression in Christianity), but I will treat each work as a source of inspired wisdom from which Christians can learn and profit as they might from a devotional work like The Imitation of Christ or Pilgrim’s Progress.

Some notes:

  • In the last three paragraphs of chapter 3 (58-59), Markos argues that the Old Testament character most like Achilles is Samson, and that each of them has elements that foreshadow Christ. It’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s interesting, and you can read it here [link: https://books.google.com/books?id=kBsYUR3801cC&pg=PA58&lpg=PA58&dq=%22the+one+most+like+Achilles+is+Samson%22&source=bl&ots=jZ3zqdJjfK&sig=ACfU3U1Cz-7aW-JCfxgH9hDyXpfHzgec1A&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwis77jMzPHkAhXjhOAKHQ3OBtgQ6AEwAHoECAEQAQ#v=onepage&q=%22the%20one%20most%20like%20Achilles%20is%20Samson%22&f=false ]
  • There’s an interesting discussion on pages 109-11 about the differences between the Greek and Roman gods, other pagan gods, and our God. One key similarity with Homer’s gods, at least, and how his treatment of them “may have prepared the hearts of the Greeks for Christ”: They are involved in human affairs, and care deeply about (at least some) people. You can read this section, titled “The Gods,” at 144-48 here [link: https://books.google.com/books?id=mD-5E704sgQC&pg=PA145&lpg=PA145&dq=%22the+gods+of+homer+afford+a+glimpse+of+the+divine%22&source=bl&ots=x5N1AZfslJ&sig=ACfU3U0FfgjY7CTovN2kAwrEmYdokc-xWQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwilz_ir2_HkAhUx2FkKHWtoC1MQ6AEwAHoECAMQAQ#v=onepage&q=%22the%20gods%20of%20homer%20afford%20a%20glimpse%20of%20the%20divine%22&f=false ]
  • The book argues (235) that the Magnificat of Mary (God “hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree,” Luke 1:51-52) is echoed by Virgil “[i]ncredibly (and to my mind at least, providentially)” when, in the Aeneid, Anchises calls on Rome “To pacify, to impose the rule of law,/ To spare the conquered, battle down the proud” (VI.1153-54).

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I noted two longer passages. First (87-88):

Much debate has been raised in our country about whether America is primarily the product of secular Enlightenment thought or Judeo-Christian values and beliefs. Perhaps the best solution to this impasse is to acknowledge the secular roots of much of our democratic system while remembering that the only reason that system works is that it is built on a body of citizens who are mostly Christian and therefore morally self-regulating. That is to say, if America were ever to lose her grounding in Christian morality, her governmental systems would eventually collapse from within. [On this last point, Professor Markos might have quoted John Adams: “We have no government armed in power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our Constitution was made only for a religious and moral people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.” See also item #10 at another post on this blogsite.]

And second (182):

Over the last century, Protestant Christianity, while avoiding the extremes of Euripedes’ play [Bacchae], has seen some division between the Apollonian and the Dionysiac — a heavy focus on systematic theology and expository Bible preaching versus an insistence on the centrality of charismatic worship and the free exercise of such spiritual gifts as tongues and prophecy. When sound, Bible-centered doctrine and Spirit-led worship are brought together in the same congregation, the results can be powerful indeed; when one seeks to exclude the other, a church can fall prey either to rigid legalism or heterodox emotionalism. On the liturgical side, imagine what would happened if the seasons of fast and feast, Lent and Carnival (Mardi Gras), were to totally reject the claims of the other rather than working in unison to prepare the soul for Easter. There have been times in church history when believers have gone too far in the direction either of asceticism or antinomianism, but thankfully the body of Christ as a whole has been able, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to navigate between these extremes. That is because Christ fuses within himself both the Apollonian and the Dionysiac. As the God Dionysius is but a shadow pointing to only one aspect of Christ — his role as messianic deliverer and bringer of hope, freedom and spiritual ecstasy — he necessarily causes a division within Thebes and the family of Cadmus that leads in the end to bloodshed and destruction.

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Markos is a very direct and to-the-point writer, and I found myself finishing each chapter sooner than I’d expected, which I intend as a compliment. And I would recommend the book, since at worst you will have read intelligent summaries of some classical masterpieces, even if you don’t buy the always interesting attempts to tie them in with the Bible and Christianity.

Do I find those attempts successful? Certainly the ancient classics should be read because they are great on its own terms, and because knowing them helps us to understand the context in which Jesus and the early Christians lived and thought. Professor Markos is also surely right when he says (249), “Christ should speak not only to our rational, logical side, but to our sense of wonder and awe as well.” And I always hesitate before parting with my hero C.S. Lewis, who believed that, contrary to his earlier, atheistic view, the myth-like power of the Gospels does not undermine their veracity but, to the contrary, bolsters it (as Professor Markos says, “Lewis came to view the myths as glimpses, road signs, pointers to a greater truth that was someday to be revealed literally and historically in a specific time and place”). Certainly I’m persuaded that the fact that Christianity bears some similarities to pagan beliefs is at worst a sword that cuts both ways, and does not on balance undermine the Gospels’ claim to veracity. What’s more, the Gospel story has dramatic differences with pagan myths, and to suggest that a group of Palestinian Jews (who presumably would take a dim view of pagan myths anyhow) would falsify an event just to adopt them (and to what purpose?) is bizarre.

But you, gentle reader, can make up your own mind on the extent to which the ancient classics have a positive connection of some sort with the Bible. What follows here is (most of) an online essay I found by Professor Markos that is adapted from his final chapter in his book (I especially like the last three paragraphs here):

Though most readers are aware that C. S. Lewis spent many years as an atheist before becoming a Christian at the age of 32, fewer know that his conversion occurred in two distinct stages. Before embracing Christ as the only-begotten Son of God, Lewis spent over a year as a theist, believing in the existence of God but still rejecting the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Among the events and influences that led Lewis to make the leap from theism to Christianity, the most important was a long evening talk he had with a close friend, a devout Roman Catholic named J. R. R. Tolkien.

As Lewis and Tolkien walked along the grounds of Magdalen College, Oxford, Lewis confided in Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, that his knowledge of mythology prevented him from accepting the gospel narrative as true. After all, the mythologies of the world were filled with stories of gods who came to earth, took on human form, died violent deaths, and returned again to life: Adonis, Osiris, Tammuz, Mithras, Balder, etc. Was not Christianity just another such myth, albeit a more sophisticated one? In response, Tolkien acknowledged the prevalence of god-men in pagan myths and legends, but then went on to suggest a different way of interpreting this phenomenon. What if, Tolkien challenged his skeptical friend, the reason the story of Christ sounded so similar to the pagan tales of dying and rising gods was because Jesus was the myth that came true?

Tolkien’s challenge revolutionized Lewis’ way of viewing mythology and not many days would pass before he would surrender his life to Christ, the historical God-Man. No longer a stumbling block, the ancient GreekRoman, and Norse tales that Lewis so loved would become for him one of the mainstays and bulwarks of his new faith. Rather than dismiss the miraculous elements of Christmas and Easter as having no more historical validity than the scapegoat tales of Oedipus or Prometheus—as many moderns do—or reject the myths themselves as either irrelevant to faith or lies of the devil meant to deceive—as many Christians do—Lewis came to view the myths as glimpses, road signs, pointers to a greater truth that was someday to be revealed literally and historically in a specific time and place.

For Lewis, it is just as vital that we proclaim and accept the full historicity of the Christian gospel as it is that we celebrate and experience its full mythic power. Yes, Lewis asserts, Christ is more than Balder, or Hercules or Dionysus, in the sense that His death and resurrection occurred in real time and had real consequences. But we must not allow His status as the historical Dying God to rob Him of His mythic splendor. Christ should speak not only to our rational, logical side, but to our sense of wonder and awe as well.

If Christianity is true, then it means that the God who created both us and the universe chose to reveal Himself through a sacred story that resembles more the imaginative works of the epic poets and tragedians than the rational meditations of the philosophers and theologians. The historical enactment of the Passion did not render the old pagan tales unclean; on the contrary, it had the reverse effect of baptizing and purifying them.

The relationship between Mary and the baby Jesus has made potentially sacred the relationship between every mother and child, both B.C. and A.D.; in a like manner, the gospel story spreads out its light both forward and backward to uplift and ennoble all stories that speak of sacrifice and reconciliation, of messianic promise and eschatological hope. It was through the poetry of the Psalms and the Prophets, as well as through the more “epic” tales of the Old Testament—Abraham’s long, circuitous journey, Joseph and his brothers, the Passover and Exodus—that Yahweh prepared the hearts and minds of His people for the Incarnation of the Christ. Does it seem so unbelievable that He should have used the greatest poets, storytellers, and “prophets” of antiquity to prepare the hearts of the pagans?

Indeed, as these pagans were without the Law and cut off from the direct (special) revelation given to the biblical writers, how else could God have reached them? Yes, God certainly spoke to them through the natural world (general revelation), but how was He to reach them at the deeper levels of their being? As Lewis argues in Book II, Chapter 3 of Mere Christianity, before the full revelation of Christ, God communicated with men in three basic ways: through their consciences, through His historical struggles with a single, chosen race of people (the Jews), and through what Lewis calls “good dreams: I mean those queer stories scattered all through the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men.”

And what of today? Do we who live on this side of Calvary still need such mythic candles? I would say we do, that we need them even more, for the secular, rationalistic, post-Enlightenment world in which we live has dissected, demythologized, and denied many of our most cherished myths. To make matters worse, Christians are often the first to distance themselves from that which is mythic, not, as they try to convince themselves, because they are believers, but because they have absorbed, usually unconsciously, the modern world’s suspicion of fairy stories.

….

Yet the hunger remains. Despite 250 years of Enlightenment rationalism, people still yearn for myth, and, if they yearn, then they can be wooed back: perhaps not directly to Christ, but at least to a pre-Christian mindset that will open the door for a later embrace of the historical God-Man. Childhood precedes adulthood as the seed the tree: just so, the pagan mind, whether B.C. or A.D., cannot perceive God face to face until it has first peered darkly into the crazy glass of myth.