Bucket List Books: Why Christians should read Homer
by Rachel Lynn Aldrich
Posted on Saturday, February 1, 2014, at 11:35 am
Before now, this series focused primarily on Christian classics. But I’m going to interrupt our regularly scheduled program for some pre-Christian classics that I think believers should take time to read.
I have heard some parents who are a little uncomfortable with exposing their high school students to Greek literature because, after all, the authors were pagans. These books primarily center on their religion and the pantheon of gods and goddesses they believed ruled the world. It’s an understandable concern, but one of the best things my mom did for me was make me take a classical literature class in high school, where I was exposed to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
These two epic poems are part of a larger circle of works, most of which are lost. The Iliad is about the Greeks war against the Trojans over a stolen wife, and the Odyssey is about one soldier’s trip back home. They are filled with adventure, romance, and insights into Greek culture. Yes, they’re pagan, and many of the heroes are immoral, which is why they shouldn’t be introduced until mid-high school. But they still should be read, and here’s why.
First, Greek and Roman literature are the foundation of the Western literary tradition. If you took my advice a couple of weeks ago and read the Divine Comedy, you probably met a lot of Greek and Roman heroes along the way. And, if you’ll remember, C.S. Lewis’ magnum opus, Till We Have Faces, was loosely based on a Greek myth. And that’s just drawing from the books I have reviewed here. Greek and Roman mythology is the body of literature all Western writers had in common, and it allowed them to communicate big ideas in a small amount of space. For example, instead of explaining that a woman was so beautiful men fought over her, all the writer had to do was compare her to Helen of Troy. The gods and goddesses were a veritable repertoire of illustrations and analogies that their readers would understand. A thorough understanding of Greek literature will go a long way in truly appreciating the great works of the Western tradition. Homer is the best place to start. And while I’m at it, this is a good time for a plug for Virgil’s Aeneid, a Roman epic poem of similar importance.
Second, Greek and Roman culture were the environments where Christianity flourished. Understanding the classical literary tradition will take you far, not only in understanding Western civilization as a whole, but also in understanding your historical and literary roots as a Christian.
Third, we still reference Homer today. Much like Shakespeare, we use Greek literature references in day-to-day conversations. Ever been stuck between a rock and a hard place? Heard of the Trojan horse? The face that launched a thousand ships? The apple of discord? Been haunted by a siren’s song? Then you’ve referenced Homer.
Finally, it is fun. Once you get over the fact that it’s an epic poem, these stories are exciting. The classical word makes for fantastic writing and storytelling. So give the Greeks a shot. And then get back to me—do you prefer the Iliad or the Odyssey?
Rachel Lynn Aldrich
Rachel is an assistant editor for WORLD Digital. She is a Patrick Henry College and World Journalism Institute graduate. Rachel resides with her husband in Wheaton, Ill.