Why Should Christians Read the Pagan Classics? – Reason 9
Reason #9: Human Condition
When it comes to the human condition, we may think that Scripture is all we need. After all, Scripture does show us our true human condition in a way that the Greeks did not and could not: our relationship to God, that we are sinners, that we are a fallen race in need of redemption, that sin separates us from God, that God loves us and offers us grace and salvation. This is the good news that has been revealed by God in Scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ and nowhere else.
Indeed, the Gospel was good news not only to the Jews, but also to the Greeks, whose standard of excellence, set by Socrates, was attainable by no one else. Read the Apology of Socrates, and you will see how good the good news was for the Greeks. It is inspiring but sad. I admire Socrates for his high ideals, but it is clear to me that I could never live up to his ideal of a soul that is truly worthy of immortality. Just as the Jews couldn’t live up to the law, the Greeks couldn’t live up to Socrates. Fortunately, salvation is a free gift.
But Scripture does not explore the human condition and human character types and the human heart in all of its complexity, diversity, and perversity. God left that to us. For the exploration of the human condition we must go to our own literature, which begins with the Greeks. Let me give you an example. In the Iliad, Achilles knows that his fate is to die young. He seeks glory at a great price. He can continue to fight and die young but gloriously in war, the greatest of the Greek heroes to be sung about around the campfires forever, or he can go home, see his aged father again, live a long happy life with family and children, and be forgotten. We seek immortality, but as Tolkien put it in The Fellowship of the Ring, we are “mortal men doomed to die.”
Homer explores this longing for adventure and glory in the Iliad and also our longing to come home again at last in the Odyssey. He gives an unforgettable picture of the destruction of a great city and the tragedy and senselessness of war. When Priam comes to beg for the body of Hector and kisses the hands that have shed so much blood, and when Achilles and Priam both weep together, Achilles for his own father and his own fate, and Priam for the loss of his noble son, Hector—there is no more moving scene in all of literature. Of such is the human condition, for war is a constant in every age and every place. The Iliad is the book of all wars, for it teaches us about its glory and also its human cost.
There is nothing in the Bible like this, nor should there be. In Scripture, the human personalities are in the background, muted; the human story is used to reveal the nature of God, not the human condition. There are very few well-developed characters in Scripture; David and Peter come to mind, but most are very sketchily drawn, like Noah, Isaac, even Abraham, none of whom are the kind of people you are likely to meet in life. I have always thought this to be convincing evidence of the divine origin of Scripture, that the nature of God is always in the forefront and the human characters are in the background. We love stories and writing about ourselves and can’t resist letting the human take center stage. It was only through divine inspiration and guidance that that never happened in Scripture. Which is why the purpose of Scripture is to reveal the nature of God, and the purpose of literature is to explore the human heart and the human condition. God gave us the ability and high calling to do that ourselves. And as usual, it all began with the Greeks.
Reading Assignment: The Iliad by Homer
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Summer 2014 edition.
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