Review: Myths from Mesopotamia tr. by Stephanie Dalley

Contained in this book are more than mere “myths from Mesopotamia,” quaint, superstitious tales about gods no longer believed in doing things we all know are impossible. On the contrary, what this book contains is a mass of insight into the human experience, an experience whose details have changed significantly in the past 4000 years but in which we nonetheless share with our ancestors of any age. Long before books of academic philosophy, there was storytelling. The telling stories was (and is) how humans understood their place in the universe and shared their insights into that experience with others.

In this book are stories that deal with the same subjects still relevant to each human life today, subjects like justice, friendship, truth, virtue, and the inevitability of death. Gilgamesh struggles with his own instincts, sorrows at the loss of a friend, and comes to terms with his own mortality. The Enuma Elish (Epic of Creation) explores themes of the meaning, value, and purpose of human life, the tension between the creative impulse and the toil and drudgery of labor. Each story presents us with another perspective, another insight into what it means to be a human being.

These stories are not relics of remote antiquity. Though some of the particulars may be foreign, the substance is alive to all of us.

None is more wonderful than man

Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man; the power that crosses the white sea, driven by the stormy south-wind, making a path under surges that threaten to engulf him; and Earth, the eldest of the gods, the immortal, the unwearied, doth he wear, turning the soil with the offspring of horses, as the ploughs go to and fro from year to year.

And the light-hearted race of birds, and the tribes of savage beasts, and the sea-brood of the deep, he snares in the meshes of his woven toils, he leads captive, man excellent in wit. And he masters by his arts the best whose lair is in the wilds, who roams the hills; he tames the horse of shaggy mane, he puts the yoke upon its neck, he tames the tireless mountain bull.

And speech, and wind-swift thought, and all the moods that mould a state, hath he taught himself; and how to flee the arrows of the frost, when ’tis hard lodging under the clear sky, and the arrows of the rushing rain; yea, he hath resource for all; without resource he meets nothing that must come: only against Death shall he call for aid in vain; but from baffling maladies he hath devised escapes.

Sophocles, “Antigone”



Review: Christ and Prometheus by William F. Lynch

Lynch here, as elsewhere, presents a vision of the world and of man that is thoroughly incarnational. For Lynch, the event of the Incarnation, in which God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, as the event that indicates and determines the entire structure of the cosmos and of the microcosmos (the human being).

In this book, Lynch focuses on the tension between the sacred and the secular in the modern world, proposing a view of these as essentially Christological categories that must be brought into unity. Just as the ancients had to struggle to reconcile the primitive in man with civilization, the new struggle is to reconcile the religious and the secular impulses and their respective projects.

Lynch’s answer to this tension is to bring the two into a harmony in which neither swallows up the other. Rather, there must be a unity of human experience in which both impulses take part. Man must find his freedom in a world of objects and his whole being in a world of more and more minute specialization. Man, the whole man, must achieve unity and purity of experience.

Review: The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers

Among the noise of the various competing postmodernist approaches to literary theory, from neo-Marxism to feminism to deconstructionism, it often seems that the traditional Christian worldview and its accompanying approach to the production, interpretation, and understanding of literature have been buried in the morass. What Sayers gives us in this book, however, is a resurrected Christian literary theory. While the Christian worldview has certainly been eclipsed since the Renaissance, Sayers proves that it is not (or is no longer) dead. On the contrary, as Sayers shows us, the Christian approach to literature remains quite relevant and is, perhaps, the only truly complete and ultimately compelling approach.

Sayers begins her book with the thesis that the Imago Dei, the image of God in man, is creativity. As she points out, at the very point in the Book of Genesis at which God proclaims his desire to create a creature in his own image, the reader has been shown nothing about this God aside from his creative faculty. It is, therefore, this creative faculty which the author of Genesis wishes to emphasize, both in God and in his image, man.

From this, Sayers proceeds on the understanding that as man’s creative faculty is his defining and divine feature, this creative faculty must therefore reflect the Creator in whose image it has been created. Man’s creative faculty, therefore, is, as is its Creator, Trinitarian and Incarnational. She then delves deeply and at length into an allegory in which the Father is the Idea behind the art, the Son is the Energy present within it, and the Holy Spirit is the Power, or impact, of the art upon the one who perceives it.

From this, this develops a fascinating and compelling understanding of literature, and of man’s artistic and creative instincts more generally. Just as God has set us free, she says, we must set our own artistic creations free. This freedom, of course, allows for the existence of evil, as each thing inevitably gives rise to its opposite by virtue of its very existence. This evil, however, must, as in the story of salvation as found in the Christian Faith, be redeemed through free, full, and pure experience. This, for Sayers, is the story that underlies all art.

Any departure from this scheme of things is, to use the accompanying theological terminology, a heresy. A story that is driven too strongly by one element of the Idea-Energy-Power Trinity and which lacks others represents a flaw in the Trinitarian nature of its creator.

At last, Sayers concludes by drawing her net wider. She extends her gaze beyond the realm of literature and the arts and encourages us to exercise our God-given creative in each of our individual vocations, whether that be in the creation of good stories or in something else altogether. It is the task of man, says Sayers, to realize the divine image within him through applying his creative faculty in every realm of human life.

Nobody sees Death

Nobody sees Death,
Nobody sees the face of Death,
Nobody hears the voice of Death.
Savage Death just cuts mankind down.
Sometimes we build a house, sometimes we make a nest,
But then brothers divide it upon inheritance.
Sometimes there is hostility in the land,
But then the river rises and brings flood-water.
Dragonflies drift on the river,
Their faces look upon the face of the Sun,
But then suddenly there is nothing.
The sleeping and the dead are just like each other,
Death’s picture cannot be drawn.
The primitive man is as any young man.
When they blessed me,
The Anunnaki, the great gods, assembled;
Mammitum who creates fate decreed destinies with them.
They appointed death and life.
They did not mark out days for death,
But they did so for life. 

Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet X

Purpose and meaning in nature and history

Neither nature nor history can tell us what we ought to do. Facts, whether those of nature or those of history, cannot make the decision for us, they cannot determine the ends we are going to choose. It is we who introduce purpose and meaning into nature and into history. … 

This dualism of facts and decisions is, I believe, fundamental. Facts as such have no meaning; they can gain it only through our decisions. Historicism is only one of many attempts to get over this dualism; it is born of fear, for it shrinks from realizing that we bear the ultimate responsibility even for the standards we choose. But such an attempt seems to me to represent precisely what is usually described as superstition. For it assumes that we can reap where we have not sown; it tries to persuade us that if we merely fall into step with history everything will and must go right, that no fundamental decision on our part is required; it tries to shift our responsibility on to history, and thereby on the play of demoniac powers beyond ourselves; it tries to base our actions upon the hidden intentions of these powers, which can be revealed to us only in mystical inspirations and intuitions; and it thus puts our actions and ourselves on the moral level of a man who, inspired by horoscopes and dreams, chooses his lucky number in the lottery. Like gambling, historicism is born of our despair in the rationality and responsibility of our actions. It is a debased hope and a debased faith, an attempt to replace the hope and the faith that springs from our moral enthusiasm and the contempt for success by a certainty that springs from a pseudo-science; a pseudo-science of the stars, or of “human nature,” or of historical destiny. 

Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, pp. 278-279

The head, the hands, and the human

We know that education must be revolutionized and we sense that this modern campus, separated from the surrounding reality and monopolizing to itself, against that reality, the whole idea of schooling, may be beginning to be a huge anachronism. There are thousands of situations in the world that can become apprenticing and schooling situations. It will only be a drop in the bucket of this problem if we assign two weeks before Election Day to give students the time to influence national elections. Again, we still live in a divided world where labor works with its hands and the intellectual lives a life of the mind, in a world not daring to face the consequences of the bitter cultural divisions that result from this old hypothesis. The laborer is cut off from his own mind, and the intellectual, worse still, is alienated not from the middle class but from his own hands. A new hypothesis begins to emerge which says that we can work with our hands and read Shakespeare too. Meantime we suffer intensely from this old aristocratic hypothesis of the division between the classes, the class of the hands and the class of the head, a division firmly established (and not moved beyond by us) in The Republic of Plato. But we must now hypothesize that this is not, except superficially, a division between town and gown, between middle class and intellectuals; it is a division rooted, tragically, at the very heart of the act of education. It is an old hypothesis that cannot work in a vast democratic society.

Fr. William F. Lynch, Christ and Prometheus: A New Image of the Secular

, p. 96-97