Monday, November 05, 2007

The Strange Things That Please God

According to poet and critic Glenn Arbery, The Iliad is the measure of all literature in the Western canon -- but God's favorite too:
"Of all the poems in the history of the West, actual scripture aside, but including The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, and all the devotional lyrics ever written, God loves the Iliad the most. I should write this with the deflecting irony that such a statement needs: the poem is after all pagan and violent, full of wrath and terrible pride and mayhem and shameless deception by the gods. But no matter what arguments the lifted eyebrow might muster, I know about the Iliad what the Scottish missionary in Chariots of Fire knew about the fact that he was a great runner. He tells his sister that the same God who made him a missionary also made him fast, 'and when I run,' he says, 'I feel His pleasure'.

"When I even think of the serious, unsparing world of honor and anguish and beauty that the Iliad brings before the imagination, I feel God's pleasure: not the tepid blessing of the sentimental Smiling Jesus that Flannery O'Connor's wonderful tattoo-covered prophet O.E. Parker finds in the recent section of the religious catalogue, but the stern approbation of the iconic Byzantine Christ, Son of Yahweh Sabaoth, the Lord of Hosts, the God who accepts Abel's blood sacrifice and the smoke of the flesh burning on the altar, because they signify the righteous and obedient heart." (Why Literature Matters, p 151)
Arbery's viewpoint is Christian, but before that poetic; you don't have to be religious to appreciate it. Homer portrayed the heroic ideal in terms of war, wrath, and bloody savagery, yet the Iliad is ultimately about the restoration of humanity's civilized values through an act of mercy: Achilles, compelled by the gods, gives the corpse of his enemy Hector to Priam. Ironically, Achilles own death isn't "for" the gods but "by" the gods, and his death sustains the dignity of life in binding the immortals to the speech of men. As far as I'm concerned, Arbery is right. It's easier to feel God's pleasure (assuming his existence) in the pagan Iliad than, say, the horribly stale Pilgrim's Progress.

Arbery's feelings for the Iliad were much my own for Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ when I saw it in the theater three and a half years ago, and revisited last night on DVD. Though it leaves you feeling pulverized, Passion takes you into the eye of that same paradox where wrath and mercy, retribution and forgiveness, become as one. As in Homer, so in the gospel drama: savagery tied to an act of mercy, a brutal and shameful death underscoring the dignity of life even more. Many critics think Gibson's Passion says horrible things about God, and that the medieval Catholic vision amounts to torture porn. But would these critics say the same thing about the Iliad if it were graphically realized on screen? I doubt it. I think modern feelings about Christianity, the Catholic Church -- not to mention Gibson himself -- get in the way of appreciating Passion for the achievement it is.

Arbery sees no more contradiction in the Iliad being "blessed" by God than Tolkien did his own Lord of the Rings. Both epics are pagan (though Tolkien's intentionally pre-Christian), presenting "a broken world, fallen, and savage, but capable of noble formality and tender mercies; groaning ceaslessly for redemption but without undue self-pity" (ibid, pp 151-152). Perhaps it's in the violent chaos of yearning for something better -- to which the Passion comes as a climax -- that "God's pleasure" runs through these sagas. For in an unredeemed world, the hopeless struggle against evil allows heroes to attain a virtue unparalleled in later Christianity. They're doomed to fail and they know it, but carry on anyway. How could God fail to be moved by such noble tragedy? Give me Frodo and Achilles any day. The Passion may have healed a crippled world, but it also put an end to a "beautiful savagery" which demanded more of people.


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