Tuesday, October 2, 2012
The Lord: Chapter 28, “Jesus and the Pagans”
In my discussion of chapter 17, “The Kindness of God,” I recalled two films that spoke to us in the late 1960s: “The King of Hearts” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Today’s chapter reminds me of a book, possibly the one with the most influence on my thinking about religion during our years at Exeter: The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.
You may recall Rod Marriott’s class on mythology, English 4M. That took Campbell’s book as the core text, which we used to analyze everything from Gilgamesh and Beowulf to stories by John Updike—always looking for what Campbell called the monomyth, the fundamental story underlying the myths of every culture:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Based on Freud, Jung, and James Frazer (The Golden Bough), Hero was a powerful model for understanding classic tales and literature. Unfortunately, it also helped turn me from a practicing Christian to an agnostic. That’s because Campbell applied his monomyth to Odysseus, Buddha, Moses, and Jesus. George Lucas would apply it to “Star Wars” too. Obi-Wan Kenobi = The Christ, n’est-ce pas?
The effect for an impressionable kid like me was that all myths were equalized and Christianity was reduced to just another one. The Incarnation—God among us—boiled down to the myth of a single people, cooked up by some Jews in Palestine 2,000 years ago.
In his chapter on “Jesus and the Pagans,” Guardini covers a lot of ground in six short pages, but one message was particularly clear to me: Jesus was no hero. Instead of starting out in ordinary conditions and going on a journey into the unknown, Jesus did pretty much the opposite, as RG notes: “In Jesus we have the double mystery of an unspeakably exalted origin and a precipitation into the inexplicable tragedy of the all too human. And we begin to sense something of what takes place when God becomes not a classical hero, or overwhelming personality, or subduer of continents, but simply ‘man.’”
Buddha “was recognized and accepted as a great master, and died surrounded by reverent friends and disciples, many of them men of the highest human and religious qualities.”
Socrates’s death “was the death of a true philosopher. Fundamentally he died not because his enemies so ordered it . . . but because he desired to end a long philosophical life philosophically. Enthusiastically devoted pupils, Plato among them, carried on his spirit.”
Jesus? He was rejected by his own people, the Jews, and abandoned by almost all of his closest followers. A hero’s death? Not exactly. He died—after being scourged and spit upon—nailed to a cross between two criminals.
How could I have missed these obvious differences? And so why today do we still take Him so for granted?
As I say, there’s much more in this chapter, but that’s what struck me most forcibly.
I hope you’re well.
This series of posts continues here with chapter 29.
* This post continues a series of mediations on Romano Guardini’s book The Lord, framed as open letters to a very real and cherished friend from my days at boarding school.