Sunday, July 01, 2012

Our Hellenistic Heroes

Having a weakness for comic book movies, I recently saw, and rather enjoyed, The Avengers. It was nothing more than it was billed to be: a smash-em-up summertime popcorn movie with decent characterization and a non-taxing plot. However, it did get me thinking about a topic I've been pondering rather often of late: how Hellenistic our culture has become.

Hellenism has been a particular study of mine, especially since it was in the Hellenistic seedbed of the Mediterranean world that the Gospel first took root. Hellenism followed the conquests of Alexander the Great, and was probably the first large-scale example of cultural imperialism in history. Unlike empires like the Babylonians and Persians, who had been content with booty and tribute, the Greeks made an effort to convert their subjects to the Greek ways of life and thinking (not that there wasn't booty and tribute involved.) This stands to reason, since the Greeks thought they had the superior culture, and they would be doing nothing but a favor to the barbaroi whom they'd conquered to pass it along to them. Throughout the conquered territories they established cities on the model of the Greek polis, promoted Greek culture and political thought, and offered instruction to the locals on Greek manners. For those natives willing to buy the whole Greek program, including worshiping the gods of the polis and embracing Greek values, the door to citizenship was open, an entrée into the ranks of the powerful.

At least, this was the Big Carrot. If any conquered people resisted, and chose to cling to their own ways and gods in the face of Greek blandishments, eventually The Stick of oppression came out. You can read about that in First and Second Maccabees. Despite the image of tolerance and openness, ultimately the Hellenistic gods would have no other gods before them.

But who were these gods? Hellenistic culture was rich with legends of gods and heroes – in fact, most of what we know as Greek mythology rises out of that period. From the Hellenic thinkers there was a tradition of One God, but he was distant and unreachable, an abstract god of philosophy who was unconcerned with man. But when you looked past the legends and superstitions, which were used primarily for amusement and light instruction, you find that the true god of the Hellenistic world was man himself: his might, his dominance, his advancements in culture and learning and political sophistication. Heroes like Hercules and Perseus were common, portrayed in sculpture with idealized physiques and in legend with superhuman powers (or devices that conveyed them.) They battled gods, monsters, and other heroes to achieve notoriety. Though some gained immortality by ascending to Olympus, most died (usually heroically or tragically), achieving immortality by their renown, living on in fame and legend.

This is what I thought of as the carefully crafted and presented images of The Avengers flashed before me. These characters were Hellenistic heroes, and the fact that they were so popular says things about our culture. But what, exactly, does it say? That's hard to pin down in a blog post, but let me suggest a few things that it might indicate.

One thing it reflects is a moral detachment. As good Hellenists, we like our heroes – and our villains – “super”. This means the struggle between good and evil has nothing to do with us directly, and will demand nothing of us. We certainly aren't evil, at least in the sense that we're not seeking to introduce an alien army from another dimension to conquer the earth, or use an interstellar mega-ray to destroy a planet, or whatever. But we can't be expected to be “good”, not having had the serum injections or been bathed in the proper gamma rays or having the billions necessary to produce the omnicapable personal armor or whatever. Rather than being participants in the struggle, we become spectators, cheering and booing as appropriate.

Another level of detachment comes from the idealization of the characters. Perfection of face and form has become such an obsession with us (as it was with the Hellenists) that even those who are favored with physiques in the “perfect 3%” cannot escape digital retouching and enhancing. No human flaws are allowed, nothing to indicate that the subject was anything short of perfect. After all, imperfection stands right next to mortality, and nobody wants to be reminded that they're mortal.

But the thing that strikes me as most Hellenistic about our culture is the anthropocentrism. It's all about Man – his world, his perceptions, his reality. “Good” is the goods of this world (health, wealth, long life, “freedom” - usually defined as absence of commitments), death is the ultimate evil, and there's nobody out there to help us (and nowhere else worth worrying about). Salvation is up to us – our strength, our ingenuity, our cleverness. Threats are big and dramatic, and saving deeds are bigger, even more dramatic, and invariably take the form of the triumph of the might of the hero(es) and the putting down of the villain(s).

To me, this is the most telling point. Our moral imaginations have been allured by a vision of salvation that is the polar opposite of that presented by the Gospel. Christ's example, and vision for His Church, involves strength through weakness, even to death; the foregoing of the goods of this world for the goods of the next; utter reliance on the grace of God as expressed through the Cross for our salvation; acknowledging our weakness and helplessness in our sinful state. We are called by Christ to personal moral struggle, and in His grace we help in the conquest of evil in the world – first and foremost in the venue over which we have most control: our own hearts. The evil we face does not take the form of roaring monsters or sneering supervillains  and we don't conquer it by smashing it with powerful fists. We face it in our own mirrors, and grapple with it in moral struggle every waking hour. Certainly nothing dramatic about that! But if the True Superhero is to be believed, that's the path of true salvation – all other paths are illusion.

As I mentioned, I'm as attracted as any to this flashy, enjoyable view of the human drama. But it's helpful to remember that by the time the Gospel appeared in the Hellenistic world, the narrative was ringing hollow. People were realizing that man's problems were heart-deep, and freedom from them could not be won with a magic sword or enchanted cloak. But how this freedom could be won eluded men.  Many were becoming jaded and cynical, hopeless before the bleakness of existence. Into this world burst the foolish, impossible tale of a God who had conquered death and offered immortality to His followers. Following Him meant walking away from the amusing tales and illusions and grappling with reality as it was, but for those willing to leave the fantasy behind, true hope was there for the taking. Perhaps we need to more carefully examine how the Gospel was originally presented in order to understand how to re-present it to our modern Hellenistic culture.

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