I guess that’s why they call it a classic

IliadIliad by Homer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had only read small excerpts before, so it was a pleasure to finally read the whole work. I found a lot of what I was expecting: a moody Achilles, a patriotic Hector, brutal battles, and meddling gods (in fact, quite a bit more of all of these than I was expecting). I was surprised at the focus on the pain and horrors of war, the longing of the soldiers for peace (especially in the early books), the criticism that both Paris and Achilles took from their compatriots, and the regrets of Helen.

Stanley Lombardo’s translation was very informal and very readable. I would like to read a more formal translation at some point, but I enjoyed Lombardo’s quite a lot.

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The problem of secular education, concisely stated

Current Wheaton College and former University of Washington professor Robert Tracy McKenzie:

For all of its discrete strengths, the university is less than the sum of its parts. Like the secular academy overall, it is “hollow at its core,” to borrow the words of historian George Marsden. There is no common foundation, no cohering vision, no basis for meaningful unity. After twenty-two years of faculty meetings, I can attest to the truth that the faculty functioned best as a group when we avoided larger questions about our collective mission and purpose. As long as we could each do our own thing we were fine.

Not that any form of education is challenge-free, of course, but this is a perceptive observation.

Shepherding a Child’s Heart

Shepherding a Child's HeartShepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed Tripp’s synthesis of Biblical teaching on parenting. He showed the connection between goals and methods over the stages of a child’s life and highlighted the importance of teaching a child God’s standards and the good news of Jesus Christ, and did so in a way that combined depth and readability.

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Homer’s historical context

Reviewing a few translations of Homer’s epics in the 1990s, James Davidson gave an overview of the how scholars have thought about Homer and also included his own thoughts on the relationship of the Iliad and the Odyssey to the legend of the Trojan War:

The extent of Homer’s subtlety in the Iliad will always be debated, but it seems certain that he assumed his audience already knew the tale of Troy and that he plays against this background, using their assumptions to create effects of irony, suspense, pathos and surprise. What he did was not so different, after all, from what the great tragedians did, or what Ovid did, or Apollonius of Rhodes, putting a new spin on ancient tales.

Building on this assumption, we can begin to approach the question of Homer’s originality. From what we know of the other epics, they covered much longer periods and many more fantastic events in many fewer lines. The bards who entertain the court in the palace of the Phaeacians and the suitors of Penelope in Odysseus’ home also manage to get more action into a shorter space of time. Almost the whole of the immense Iliad, by contrast, covers only a few days in the ten-year saga of the Trojan War and it tells of only one episode out of many, the wrath of Achilles. It is a small detail from the big picture, blown up to monumental size. It should have been a short interlude, perhaps, a little entertainment between courses. The surprise that greets modern readers, therefore, when they discover that the Iliad does not in fact begin at the beginning and contains no mention of the Judgment of Paris or the fatal Horse, may well have been the reaction of Homer’s original audience. Instead of adding on other episodes, Homer brings a magnifying glass to the tale and fills the time by deepening his characters, by realising more fully their imagined world, by broadening the narrative, rather than simply extending it. The other storytellers in the epics are not models for Homer’s project, but designed to point up a contrast with his own more detailed, more lifelike work. He thus sets himself off against the balladeers, self-consciously highlighting his own originality.

The Odyssey seems to take innovation even further. Odysseus is a prominent figure in the Iliad and features in several Trojan tales that lie outside it. One story tells how he tried to avoid serving on the expedition by feigning madness and ploughing a field, until someone places baby Telemachus in his path, arresting his lunatic progress and exposing his folly as a sham. There is little sign, however, of a non-Homeric tradition of his return. Troy is a famous story and its fame resonates throughout the Odyssey. But when Homer begins the tale of Odysseus’ return he seems to have little idea of where the story is going, as if his audience have never heard it before. The earliest painted scenes, moreover, look like precise illustrations of Homer’s text, leaving the impression that he has a monopoly on the subject. Even the fabulous Phaeacians seem to crop up nowhere else. There must, therefore, be a distinct possibility that the story of the Odyssey is largely Homer’s own. With all their twists and turns and feints and illusions, both the plot and the voyage look like projections of the hero’s multivalent Iliadic personality (or inventions of his subtle imagination), his homecoming an extrapolation from his reluctance to leave his wife and son. There were traditions, to be sure, about other voyages. Homer already knows of the Argo, and both Hercules and Perseus were sent to the ends of the earth in search of exotic quarry. The Odyssey seems to have used some of this material. The witch Circe, in particular, looks like she is in the wrong saga. She really belongs to Aia (Colchis) rather than the island of Aiaia, being Aeëtes’ sister and Medea’s maiden aunt. Read against these other myths, the Odyssey looks not like another version but an inversion of the fantastic voyage. Odysseus’ journey is always being deconstructed. A favourable wind from Aeolus takes him in sight of Ithaca, but then he gets blown back off course. He visits and revisits Aeolus, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis and ends up on Calypso’s aimlessly floating isle. His journey keeps unravelling itself teasingly like Penelope’s famous loom. His odyssey is not a linear journey to more and more peculiar realms; it is a quest without a quarry that spirals dispiritingly into time. Far from searching for a Golden Fleece or the Head of Medusa or the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, Odysseus turns down the prize offered him of immortality. He just wants to go home.

The voyage itself, moreover, is related not by the poet’s voice but out of Odysseus’ own mouth as a guest of the Phaeacians, as if Homer was marking his distance from the more fantastic elements of his tale from the mythodes, from oral history. It has to be like this, of course, because Odysseus alone survives. No one else knows what he has been up to these past ten years. His cannot be a famous story because he has disappeared from the heroic tradition, out of sight of men and the earshot of bards. He has disappeared from fame. When we see him clinging to the pieces of his broken craft, close to extinction, the fate of the poem itself is in the balance. He alone carries with him the account of his exiguous history. Without Odysseus, the Odyssey is sunk. The contrast with the Iliad and the Argonautica could not be more profound. The Odyssey is presented as a new and terrifying venture in literature, a story that has never been told. If the Iliad is the first example of great literature built up out of old stories, the Odyssey, perhaps, inaugurates the bizarre tradition of making things up.

The whole essay was worth reading, even with his unnecessary shot at creationists. He comments on translations in general and several different English translations particularly at the end.

The Iliad: text and translation

Daniel Mendelsohn wrote a review of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Iliad in 2011. In the review, he included some background about the scholarly debates on the textual history of the epic and some comments about translating it. A couple of paragraphs on translation:

Mitchell’s stripping away takes other, subtler forms. In a translator’s note, he cites the now canonical judgment of the Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold, who, in an 1861 essay called “On Translating Homer,” enumerated what he saw as the four cardinal qualities of Homeric verse: rapidity, plainness of syntax and diction, plainness of thought, and nobility. Homer’s Greek is capacious enough that he can achieve all four, but English translators have generally had to choose one or two at the expense of the others. (The sole exception is probably Alexander Pope, whose Iliad, set in rhyming couplets and published between 1715 and 1720, is among the greatest translations of any work in any language.) Richmond Lattimore’s craggy 1951 translation, which imitates Homer’s expansive six-beat line and sticks faithfully to his archaisms (“Odysseus . . . laid a harsh word upon him”), has nobility but not rapidity; classicists tend to favor it. The enormously popular version by the late Princeton scholar Robert Fagles, published in 1990, has a gratifying plainness—my students have always preferred it—but doesn’t get the grandeur. Other interpreters go their own way: the stark “War Music” of Christopher Logue is more an adaptation than a translation; Stanley Lombardo’s 1997 version goes for a tight-lipped, soldierly toughness—a post-Vietnam Iliad.

But too often Mitchell’s insistence on speed forces him to sacrifice nobility. Precisely because Homer’s Greek is an old inheritance—an amalgam of many styles and periods and dialects going back many centuries (no one ever spoke the Greek you read in Homer)—it has a distinctively archaic quality that, paradoxically, never gets in the way of speed. (It likely sounded to Greek ears the way the King James Bible does to ours: old-fashioned but so much a part of the language that it never registers as stuffy.) For Mitchell, Homer’s famous epithets can obscure what he calls the “meaning”: “ ‘Flashing-helmeted Hector,’ ” he writes, “means no more than ‘Hector.’ ” But “meaning” isn’t the point. Part of the way in which the epic legitimatizes its ability to talk about so many levels of existence and so many kinds of experience is its style: an ancient authority inheres in that old-time diction, the plushly padded epithets and stately rhythms.

Conversing about conversion

Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and AnglicanismJourneys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism by Robert L. Plummer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The narratives and responses were all pretty interesting. My favorite set was the first, between the Baptist who became Eastern Orthodox and a Baptist seminary professor. Brad Gregory’s response to the Catholic convert to evangelicalism was quite challenging and used a lot of examples from the Reformation period, but he was more successful in pointing out the challenges that disunity poses to Protestants’ claims than in making a compelling case for Catholicism.

I would have liked to see the rejoinders go into more depth in responding to the responses. Overall, it was an informative and readable book.

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Muslim veneration of Mary

At The Christian Century, Philip Jenkins recently noted the importance of Mary to many Muslims as well. After describing a few famous incidents in which Mary was believed to appear in Egypt, he writes

Such visions demonstrate the continuing power of traditional beliefs among the Christian minority, but they also display the interest of faithful Muslims. The Zeitoun apparitions were a national sensation and were witnessed by the nation’s leader at the time, Gamal Abdel Nasser. The fervor can be understood in the context of the catastrophic national mood that followed the nation’s defeat by Israel in 1967, at a time when Egyptians were desperately seeking signs of hope. But Muslims have participated fully in celebrating Marian manifestations, many of which actually began with reports from Muslim believers and then were taken up by their Christian neighbors.

Mary is a major figure in Muslim tradition and piety. She actually receives much more attention in the Qur’an than she does in the Christian Bible. Throughout Islamic history, she has been a focus of popular devotion, and women invoke her as a mother figure in a way that is highly reminiscent of Mary’s role in Catholic Christianity. Muslim women are likely to plead with Mary to help them bear a child or to offer healing.

Whatever the stance of official Islamic authorities, the belief in intercession is widespread among Egypt’s Mus­lims. Not surprisingly, then, stories of Marian visitations exercise a very wide appeal and can lead Muslims to visit Christian shrines. Whether seen by Christians or Mus­lims, Lady Mary (Sitana Mariam) is one and the same, making her a common adornment for both faiths. The fact that she has so often left her mark on the Egyptian landscape makes her a patriotic treasure. In the words of the national newspaper al-Ahram, “all Egyptians, both Muslims and Christians, have exceptional love and respect for the Virgin Mary.”

The entire short piece is worth a read, and, if I am understanding it properly, gives a glimpse of the kind of folk Islam that has often attacked by those with stricter interpretations of the practices that Islam demands and forbids.


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