What Makes a Hero: A Glimpse into Contrasts

This week I resume teaching World Literature to college students. I adore this course. Among the early topics is a section exploring the question, “What is a hero?” We begin the term by readingimages sections of Homer’s epics—the Iliad and the Odyssey. If the classics are the great books that everyone should have read but few actually have read, then I hope this course mitigates that lamentable state.

We examine the Greek and Roman pagan views of what makes a hero and discover therein that they were created. They were gods that came to be. Unlike the God of the Bible, Greek gods are not eternal. Moreover, they were created out of chaos. And the Greek gods deceived wantonly. To be a Greek god required duplicity. Olympus, e.g., exalted gods of treachery.

But what strikes me each time I read and teach through Homer’s epics is the destruction wrought by their pride–the gods’ and warriors like Achilles, Agamemnon, and Hector. When the Iliad opens Homer sets the epic initially as a bloody struggle of wills between Achilles and Agamemnon. Both warriors boast and taunt the other. Women have been captured and each man feels slighted vis a vis the spoils of war. When Calchas prophesies to Agamemnon, notice the pettiness and pride of Agamemnon, as he excoriates the prophet:

You damn soothsayer!/ You’ve never given me a good omen yet./ You take some kind of perverse pleasure in prophesying/ Doom, don’t you? Not a single favorable omen ever!/ Nothing good ever happens!/ And now you stand here/ Uttering oracles before the Greeks, telling us/ That your great ballistic god is giving us all this trouble/ Because I was unwilling to accept the ransom/ For Chryses’ daughter but preferred instead to keep her/ In my tent! And why shouldn’t I? I like her better than/ My wife Clytemnestra. She’s no worse than her/ When it comes to looks, body, mind, or ability./ Still, I’ll give her back, if that’s what’s best./ I don’t want to see the army destroyed like this./ But I want another prize ready for me right away./ I’m not going to be the only Greek without a prize,/ It wouldn’t be right. And you all see where mine is going.” (I, 112-128)

What traits of a Greek hero do you see here? Pride, wrath, petty jealousy, a preoccupation with glory for oneself.

Contrast this with the Bible’s pictures of what constitutes the heroic. In World Literature, I contrast the Greek and Roman views of heroism with biblical examples of the heroic. Joseph, whose story is recounted in Genesis, is one of our case studies.

Rather than being exalted as a boasting warrior like Achilles or Agamemnon, Joseph was betrayed by his brothers and sold by them to Ishmaelites for so many shekels of silver (Gen 37). Joseph was then taken down to Egypt and sold to Potiphar. He was imprisoned. And yet he entrusted himself to God. He did not exalt himself, his strength, or his wisdom. Even when others recognized his wisdom, Joseph ascribed it to the gift of God (Gen 41:16; 45:8; 50:19-20).

Even students with only a cursory knowledge of the Bible have often heard the words Joseph recounted to his brothers: “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:19-20 ESV).

The contrasts between Greco-Roman pagan views and the biblical view of heroism are nothing if not ample and stark. The Greek and Roman gods were finite, dependent, moody, petulant, fickle, self-absorbed, and prideful. As Francis Schaeffer wrote, they were amplified humanity. In short, they were like we are—sinful.

In glorious contrast, however, is the biblical view of the heroic. And the God of Scripture is instead infinite, transcendent, righteous, and altogether holy. And as to human heroes, rather than exalting themselves, readers see men like Joseph–men who suffer due to others’ sin, men who overcome evil with good, men who bore the wrath others deserved.

As my students will see through the Joseph narrative, the ultimate author of Joseph’s narrative pointed to a later Joseph who would likewise, but in an infinitely superior way, not exalt himself, but do the will of his Father. He would suffer for others’ sin, and even be made sin for them. And he would overcome evil by exiting his grave. He would bear wrath so that others would escape it. This was a different hero indeed.





The Devil’s Books?

Prepare to be offended. I want to ask two related questions. First, should Christians read the classics? Second, what principles should guide their reading?

Let me sharthe the background of what got me thinking on this. Recently, I was having an email conversation with a “Facebook friend.” We’re both Christians, both thoughtful people, and both reasonably well educated. In the course of our writing back and forth, she asked me why I had read Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Here are my exact words to her: “Ha, I read widely. I was a latecomer to Harry Potter (sic). I read a lot of history, theology, and literature. But when something is as influential as those books, I thought I should read them all in order to understand their worldview. Just because I read something doesn’t mean that I buy into its ideology or worldview. I read many things with which I disagree. But I think it’s important to know the entire marketplace of ideas, not just things that make me comfortable or with which I agree.”

Can you guess her response? Here is the first part: “I’ve heard that before. Please don’t be offended, but don’t you think we can know about it because we know about the enemy and his worldview? All I need to know is that it is inspired by the dark side. When Harry uses supernatural powers that do not glorify Jesus Christ, it’s pretty obvious that it’s not good for us. We can know a lot about it because we know the enemy. We know how he works and we know his tactics, but we don’t need to eat from his table. It’s kinda (sic) like the Lord’s warnings in the Old Testament about going to them for counsel.”

What does that conversation reveal about the issues raised? Am I sinning because I read the Harry Potter books? I don’t practice divination; I don’t consult the dead; I don’t cast spells. But I did enjoy the books. I cannot speak for other readers, but I was never as interested in the magic that Harry performed as I was in Harry’s character—how Rowling made him (and other characters) come alive in the stories. We see how Harry grew up, and how and why his personality was the way it was.

The same goes for any literary character, right? Read The Great Gatsby? I feel like Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway, and Daisy Buchanan live in my imagination, but they were just literary characters. I don’t worship them. Rather I learn from them. How? I can only say, in the way that great literature alone accomplishes. It is part of the (forgive the pun) magic of great literature.

On the other hand, I have tried to think through my friend’s counsel. She is right in that Scripture clearly condemns magic, astrology, demonic spirits, witchcraft, etc. (see Deut. 18:9-12 and 1 Chr. 10:13, e.g.). There are scores of examples in Scripture where witchcraft is condemned. I selected these as among the most obvious, for those who will read them and think through them. Does thinking on things that are honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable (Phil. 4:8) preclude me from reading anything but Scripture and Sunday school literature?

I asked her if Christians should read War and Peace and Huckleberry Finn. I’m still waiting on her answer. Because we need to think through these things. Much is at stake. I’d hate to think that all my shelves of Dostoyevsky, Tolkien, O’Connor, Walker Percy, Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis, Larry Woiwode, and T.S. Eliot are for naught. Murders abound in Dostoyevsky, but he’s generally considered a Christian novelist. Tolkien wrote of hobbits, magic, etc., but his writings have reached thousands with the gospel worldview. O’Connor’s writings are filled with sexual deviancy but she’s overtly biblical. Percy, like O’Connor, was Roman Catholic, but I wrote my master’s thesis on Percy, and he was saturated with the biblical worldview, and warned through his writings of man, outside of Christ, is “lost in the cosmos.” Tolstoy, Lewis, Woiwode, Eliot, et al were all orthodox Christians, but each had things in his writings that wouldn’t make it into one’s Sunday school curricula. And the Christian world should evade reading them? I don’t think so.

Fear not, we’re still “Facebook friends.” Iron sharpens iron, right? Hopefully, we can discuss more than the 66 books we both cherish. I hear some good ones have been written. Many even term them “the classics.”

I realize I didn’t answer the questions myself, but you might infer what I think. I continue to teach literature and writing to this very day. I think life without literature, like life without music, would be a mistake. Scripture must guide our evaluations of what constitutes “great” literature (often termed ‘the classics’). Though I don’t make the case that the Harry Potter books constitute great literature, I do think they’re worthy of being read.

Secularism does not lend itself to the creation of great literature simply because secularism is reductionistic. Only a biblical Judeo-Christian worldview gives objective reasons for man’s dignity (he is the creation of God who is goodness Himself) and art, as an ability of co-creation of the true, good, and beautiful, is rooted in a biblical worldview.   But to disparage quality literature as inspired by the devil, it seems to me, cheapens the discussion and tends more towards intellectual cowardice than towards sanctification. Romeo and Juliet, e.g. is replete with metaphors about astrology and the roles of fate. However, to ignore and/or forsake the incomparable beauty and truths in that play, or others of that caliber, ends in making Christian holy huddles an object of pity.

As thoughtful Christians, let us trust truth-tellers, even if they don’t have coffee with us in our Sunday school classes. God even uses pharaohs to manifest his glory.