Impiety is madness

Leland Ryken, a professor of English at Wheaton College, notes this in Homer’s Odyssey: Christian Guides to the Classics:

A notable feature of Greek mythology is that it contains numerous parallels (called “analogues”) to the Christian religion – stories about divine intervention in people’s lives, for example, or a description of a paradisal garden and a realm of afterlife to which people go after they have died. G. K. Chesterton said that these analogues are purely human attempts to arrive at religious truths by means of the imagination alone. C. S. Lewis speaks of “good dreams” that God sent to the human race as a foreshadowing of the reality found in the Bible and in Christ. Renaissance historian Walter Ralegh called these myths “crooked images of some one true history” – fallen humanity’s unaided and only partially true version of a history found in its accurate form in the Bible.

As an English instructor, I teach great books that were written before and after the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Again and again, I am struck by the eternality of Christ in human history: in BC times, Christ inspired the imagination of thinkers and writers who unknowingly anticipated the fullness of truth in Him (cf., Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides). In AD times, Christ haunts the imagination of thinkers and writers who knowingly shrug their shoulders or shake their fist at Him (cf., Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Henrik Ibsen, Friedrich Nietzsche, George Eliot, Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf).

Let me share a recent analogue that I discovered between the pagan dramatist Euripides in The Bacchae and the apostle Paul in the Book of Romans; they both share a wisdom about the madness of impiety. Consider the parallels that run through these texts. Beginning with the The Bacchae, here the Messenger rebukes king Pentheus, who vehemently denies the divinity of Dionysus and seeks to persecute his followers:

To know your human limits, to revere the gods,
Is the noblest and I think the wisest course
That mortal men can follow.

Here, the Chorus of Asian bacchae provides commentary on Pentheus’ atheism:

Hardly stirring, hardly seeming to happen, it happens sometimes so slowly, the power of the gods, but it does, then, stir, does come to pass, and, inexcorably comes to punish humans, who honor first self-pride, and turn, their judgment torn, their reason torn, demented from the holy.  The first step of the gods, it hardly, in its great time, seems to stir, the first step of the godly hunt of the unholy, first step of the revenge on those who put themselves beyond and over law. So little does it cost to understand that this has power, whatever is divine; so little cost to comprehend that what has long been lawful over centuries, comes forever out of Nature. 

Now, compare what St. Paul says about the enemies of God in his letter to Roman Christians (1:18-23):

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

If ever there was evidence for common grace, defined by Ryken as “the belief that God endows all people, whether Christian or not, with a capacity for the good, the true, and the beautiful,” then here it is. Amen!


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