Should Johnny Read Homer?

By Arnie Gentile, January 20, 2010 12:13 pm
The Odyssey

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With the upsurge in the popularity of classical home school curricula, there has arisen a simultaneous concern about the appropriateness of such literature for the Christian student. Should Christian students read classic pagan or secular literature like Homer’s Odyssey or Melville’s Moby Dick? Are there dangers lurking in these works that could negatively impact impressionable minds? Perhaps we should begin to answer this question with the thoughts of a couple of great churchmen.

“Since all truth is from God, if anything has been said aptly even by impious men, it ought not be rejected, because it proceeded from God. And since all things are from God, why is it not lawful to turn to His Glory whatever may be aptly applied to His use?” [John Calvin]

“In riding to Newcastle, I finished the tenth Iliad of Homer. What an amazing genius had this man, to write with such strength of thought and beauty of expression, when he had none to go before him! And what a vein of piety runs through his whole work, in spite of his pagan prejudices!” [John Wesley]

“Last week, I read over, as I rode, [a] great part of Homer’s Odyssey…. It is indeed not without its faults…. But his numerous beauties make large amends for these. Was ever a man so happy in his descriptions, so exact and consistent in his characters, and so natural in telling a story? He likewise inserts the finest strokes of morality…; on all occasions recommending the fear of God, with justice, mercy, and truth.” [John Wesley]

Apparently, these great men of God saw value in a certain class of literary works, that is, those that contained and communicated truth and spoke “aptly” about humans and their world despite their pagan or otherwise secular shortcomings. Calvin seems to argue that no piece of literature should be dismissed out of hand or categorically censored without a fair reading and that all literature should be read with discernment to the glory of God. Wesley’s enthusiasm for Homer’s works in particular reveals this understanding. He commends these works for the values they exemplify, and he obviously believed that there was much for a Christian to learn from these works despite their pagan content and occasional curse word.

The same could be said for more contemporary works such as Melville’s Moby Dick, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels just to name a few. Respectively, each of these works contains occasional curse words, racial slurs, vulgarities, or false views of God. But each, on the other hand, contains decidedly Christian themes and realistic depictions of the human condition which we all must confront and consider.

For example, Moby-Dick, despite the fact that it depicts dark characters that take the Lord’s name in vain and occasionally curse, is not a dime novel riddled with gratuitous profanity and lewd obscenity. It is one of the greatest literary works in American history and is worthy of respect as such by Christian and non-Christian alike. What makes it a classic? For one, the themes presented in the book are consistent with biblical truth. In addition, great literature such as Moby-Dick enables us to see more deeply into our own lives, our fears, our doubts, our weaknesses. Melville speaks with an unflinching honesty which is refreshing to the Christian reader awash in a post-modern, relativistic culture.

Furthermore, I would submit that being familiar with the great classic literature of our history is not only important to becoming well-educated, but also is an asset to spiritual formation. The events and language presented in these works are not gratuitous or sensational but appropriate to the characters, the settings, and the historical context, and it is the characters within the context of these works that we must judge for their words and actions. To make an honest depiction of this historical context is to honor the reader’s intelligence and maturity. That should not hinder Christian growth; it should stimulate Christian maturity.

Nor should these honest depictions necessarily constitute an indictment of a work as ungodly, any more than does the Bible’s honest presentations about flawed humanity encourage us to sin. If the presentations in these literary works constitute the authors’ intentional defiance of the Lord’s commands, then would not a similar indictment rest upon many of the scriptural writers? As with Scripture, we need to make judgments about the characters depicted within the novel, not the author himself, who, like the Scriptural authors, is committed to communicating plain and unadorned truth. This is the essence of a classic work of art.

As students read these works, they will come to learn that, despite their corrupted natures, there was much the thinkers of our intellectual heritage correctly understood through reason alone, without the aid of revelation. Thus, students will grow in their appreciation of God’s Providence and the range of unaided human reason. For instance, Wesley considered Socrates “the wisest of all mortal men, that is, of all that were not favored with divine revelation.”

In reading Homer’s works, students will learn what the students in the “public schools” of the Greek city states were taught in ancient times. Homer’s works were foundational to Greek education, and his influence spread well into the first century A.D. This represents the beginning of the stream of western thought, which began in wonder, and continued through and was substantially modified by the golden age of Greek philosophy (the age of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle) in the fourth century B.C. Without the presence of classical thought in the first century and the hunger for ultimate knowledge that it provoked, the spread of the gospel among the Greeks would likely have been greatly hampered. In addition, not only did the children of ancient Greece read these works, but they memorized and enacted them. Might there be something for a Christian to learn from such devotion?

Furthermore, while reading classic works, students will be confronted not only with humanity at its worst, but also at its best, as incredible feats of courage and despicable acts of cowardice amplify the concern that these writers had for character and virtue, provoking the question, who or what is the source of these universal moral values that we all recognize? Why should it be that generation after generation intuitively grasps and admires these notions of nobility and experiences shame for failing to exemplify them (Rom 2:14-16)? Hence, familiarity with classic literature has great value for Christian apologetics.

Finally, students will be trained in discerning truth from error. The medieval church fathers believed that all things are good insofar as they exist, but, of course, this good has been corrupted. Drawing the good from the corrupt is an exercise in biblical grace (Phil 8:4; 1 Th 5:21). As students move into the world, honing this skill becomes increasingly critical, and now is the time to begin, while he or she is still in “training mode.”

Invitation to the Classics

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Younger children – for whom nuanced understandings are still out of reach – would not be expected to grapple with either the themes or the presentations of these works. I would agree that most classic works should probably be rated PG-13. This being said, we should have every reason to believe that students who are in the appropriate age group and who have the proper guidance will be able to read these books with the Christian discernment and mature appreciation for the real life lessons that they teach and the truth that they contain. I would recommend that home school students who read these classics write reports on these works, evaluating them from a Christian perspective. Developing such critical thinking skills is essential for Christian life and ministry, and there is no better way to acquire such skill than reading great literature.

The great leaders of the reformation and the founders of our nation were intentionally well versed in classic literature. The study of this literature was considered a normal element of a liberal arts education. Charles Spurgeon exhorted the young pastors of his day:

“Besides this, brethren, you have the marvelous storehouse of ancient and modern history-Roman, Greek, and English-with which, of course, you are seeking to become well acquainted. Who can possibly read the old classic tales without feeling the soul on fire? As you rise from their perusal, you will not merely be familiar with the events which happened in ‘the brave days of old,’ but you will have learnt many lessons that may be of service in your preaching today.”

Therefore, like Calvin, Wesley, and Spurgeon, I commend the classic authors to you, not because I agree with everything they say or advocate, but because they are great writers who creatively wrestled with the world as they understood it and who spoke “aptly” despite their sinfulness. It is my prayer that students who read these works would enter into a great adventure of learning to love the great literature of the western intellectual heritage that we all share, and without which, western culture would not exist.

Blessings and best wishes,

Arnold E. Gentile, M.A.
CLASS Academic Administrator

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