Saturday, June 21, 2008

Beware of the Romans!

In addition to being seduced by Plato, I have found myself somewhat smitten with Ovid. After reading a few books of the Metamorphoses for the first time, I found myself musing that a sense of loss and sorrow is woven into the stories of humanity, and that the Gospel is not a rival to paganism but an answer to it. I still find Ovid a pretty charming fellow.

One of the most striking examples of a story that could almost be included in the Bible is that of Baucis and Philemon in Book VIII. Jove and Mercury walk through the country of Phrygia disguised as mortals, and knock on a thousand doors looking for shelter. Finally, a poor old couple open their cottage doors to the strangers, and serve them with the most elaborate hospitality their poverty can provide. The gods reveal themselves to the astonished couple, and warn them to leave the country and follow them to a nearby mountain. The inhospitable country is destroyed by a flood, and Jove and Mercury create a grand palace on the mountain for Baucis and Philemon.

Can anyone say Lot and the visitors?

Fast-forward a century later. Paul and Barnabus heal a cripple in Lystra (a city in Phrygia), and the Lyconians declare “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” Why not? Everyone knows that happens sometimes; we’ve all heard the story in Ovid. They assume Barnabus is Zeus (Jove) and Paul is Hermes (Mercury), and bring oxen and garlands to the gates of the city. Paul and Barnabus tear their robes, and declare to the people that they are mortals as well, but “even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them.”

The Romans had learned the lesson, but it was the wrong one. Their story had a ring of truth that even a 21st-century grad student like me could identify, but perhaps the resemblance made its seductiveness dangerous.

I don’t know if I will ever know the Great Story so well that I will never find myself seduced by the smaller stories. Like a good English major, I like to hope that these stories are so seductive because they contain pieces of the Truth, and that the Gospel is so rich because it consumes them within its redemption. But in the mean time, I am left navigating a sea of stories that seem pretty convincing when I’m in the middle of them.

To the Lyconians who live in Ovid’s world, I do not have any advice. I too am so often seduced by a good story, and when repentance turns into a story of guilt or dignity turns into a story of arrogance, I rarely have a clear idea of where exactly I went wrong. I once lived in a house of people who were determined not to be seduced by stories of the American Dream, but most of us (me at least) had stories of martyrdom and prophesy that we had to keep reigned.

All there is to do is listen, I suppose, allowing the Gospel to correct the ways I’ve gone wrong, allowing Paul and Barnabus to correct the mistakes I am bound to make along the way.

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