Thisby Thestoop and the Black Mountain

It’s fair to say that I read a good number of books children’s books. Having kids of my own, I like to pilfer their shelves from time to time. In our house, we like to stock “the classics” as a sort of quality guarantee. Since children’s books became a genre there have been writers who have tried to cash in on the children’s market as a way to make a quick buck with little effort. Reading “the classics” means that you get the best books from every era without having to wade through the formulaic twaddle, most of which has mercifully been forgotten over the years.
It’s a different story with modern children’s books. Picking up a new children’s book means taking a chance on wasting your time, and the modern children’s book publishing machine loves tried and true formulas. After the success of Harry Potter we got books about schools for magical/mythological/specially talented kids who are sorted into groups based on their personalities. After The Hunger Games took off, we’ve have had m…

From Achilles to Christ

In Canto XXII of Dante’s Purgatorio, Dante and Virgil meet a man named Statius, a pagan convert to Christianity. In their ensuing discussion, Statius says to Virgil:

"…Thou first directedst me
Towards Parnassus, in its grots to drink,
And first concerning God didst me enlighten.

Thou didst as he who walketh in the night,
Who bears his light behind, which helps him not,
But wary makes the persons after him,

When thou didst say: 'The age renews itself,
Justice returns, and man's primeval time,
And a new progeny descends from heaven.'

Through thee I Poet was, through thee a Christian…

Throughout the ages disagreement has existed among Christians about the relative value of pagan literature for a Christian worldview. There have been those like Tertullian who deny that Jerusalem ought to have any traffic with Athens, and this seems to be the common view of many conservative Christians today. However, there is another tradition within the Church, exemplified by the passage from Dante above, that pagan writers possessed at least some knowledge of the logos by the common grace which all men possess, even if they did not have the full revelation of Jesus Christ. As one who, by profession, teaches the pagan classics to Christian high school students, it should be clear on which side of the fence I stand. All pagan stories are yearning for something true, something once known but half forgotten in the mists of time. As such pagan stories can contain truth that may instruct and be beneficial to Christians seeking to better understand God’s creation and purpose in the world. Nor does it surprise me that the Apostle Paul shows a good knowledge of Greek poetry to be useful not only when discoursing with pagans (Acts 17) but also when instructing a young pastor (Titus 1:12).

From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics is an attempt by Professor Louis Markos to inculcate an appreciation for the pagan classics among Christians of today, and to pick up the line of medieval interpretation of the classics of which Dante is merely one example. I bought this book hoping to find a closely reasoned and sustained argument for Christian reading of the pagan classics, and was initially disappointed to find that this book was something else entirely. While the introduction was a short case for Christian reading of Greek and Roman literature, the rest of the book is a series of meditations working through some major works of classical literature, and drawing out the pre-Christian themes which prefigure Christ or point toward more Christian truths.

While I was, as I said, initially disappointed that this was the case, I quickly began to appreciate Professor Markos’s approach as a wonderful way to draw people into classical works. The book was a pleasure to read, and was full of gleanings and insights which I know will help me in my teaching, and which would also help anyone in understanding the great books of the past. I feel that he never overreached by trying to force the ancients into a Christian mold, but truly uncovered the insights of the greatest writers of antiquity and showed the collective yearning in the Greek soul for something more. I would heartily recommend this book to any Christian who is opposed to reading pagan literature as a good case for the other side. Likewise, I would recommend this book for any Christian who is actively engaged in reading and enjoying the pagan classics. From Achilles to Christ will enrich your reading of these works in a wonderful way.

Finally, I might recommend that the reader be familiar with the works being discussed before reading the chapters about them in the book. If possible, you should read the actual classic before reading Markos’s meditation on it. I can’t imagine reading this book without that background. Throughout my reading, I found myself smiling along with Professor Markos, and nodding at remembered passages and scenes from the literature. However, without a contextual framework, it may be difficult to retain all of Professor Markos’s insights while picking up the actual piece of ancient literature. Above all, this book ought to spark an appreciation for the pre-Christian writers of antiquity and for all that they have to offer to the world, and especially to Christians, today.