Finding Faith, Hope, and Love in a Pagan Classic
|Nov 8||Public post|| 1|
By Paul Krause
What hath the Greco-Roman classics to do with Christianity?
Why study those stories and writers when all you need to do is read the Bible and learn about Christ? Unknowingly, many who follow this path walk the way of Tertullian who famously derided all forms of non-scriptural learning and believed that Christians should have nothing to do with the wisdom and insights of the Greeks.
But against this antagonistic view is also a long tradition of Christian liberal arts. Clement of Alexandria believed the best of Greek literature and philosophy was a praeparatio evangelium, a preparation for the gospel. It cannot be forgotten that Hellenization provided the lingua franca for the gospel to spread—after all, the entire corpus of the New Testament was originally written in Greek. In De Doctrina Christiana. St. Augustin declared that “all truth belongs to God” and that Christians should not be afraid to utilize the truths found in the pagan liberal arts, natural sciences, rhetoric, and logic, to advance the glory of Christ and the truths of the Christian faith. While it is true that Augustine also said that all superstitions and falsities in the pagan stories and traditions should be rejected, Clement and Augustine provided a deep hermeneutical reorientation of the classics to the Good, True, and Beautiful. Dispensing with the superstitions and falsities therein allowed Christians to penetrate the heart of pagan culture and stories and direct the soul to what it truly desires (love).
The pagan world was often bereft of hope. But in the decades leading up to the incarnation of Christ, Ovid’s Metamorphoses was being compiled (it was eventually published in the first decade A.D.). The Metamorphoses represents perhaps the fullest maturation of Greco-Roman story, and none are as powerful and close to the Christian message as the story of Perseus and Andromeda. For in the tale of Perseus slaying Medusa, rescuing Andromeda, and defeating Phineus, faith and love triumph, bringing hope to the reader concerning the power of faith and love in our world.
There is much skullduggery involved in the Perseus narrative, that much is true and not to be forgotten. The vanity and debauchery of Medusa and Poseidon caused Athena to turn Medusa’s beautiful hair into a nest of snakes, and Cassiopeia’s vanity and pride led her to declare that her daughter, Andromeda, was more beautiful than the naiads, thus enraging Poseidon and causing Andromeda to be enchained as a prospective sacrifice to the sea monster. And Phineus’ ambition and lust for power ultimately led to his death.
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But amid all these sins, the faith and love of Perseus and Andromeda stand out. Perseus is informed by Athena how to defeat Medusa and his faith, his trust (fides), in Athena’s revelation allows him to slay thee sleeping monster with the help of the reflective shield. Perseus’ love for Andromeda allows him to defeat the sea monster and rescue the beautiful and life-giving princess. And Andromeda’s love for Perseus seals their bond of marital union despite the politicking of Phineus and his ambitious lust for power.
Phineus never loved Andromeda. His interest in her was to secure his claim to the throne. Love was subordinated to power. Love was turned inward to the self—the incurvatus in se, as Augustine called it—which is the root of all sin. His pride, his sin, was that he directed the love that ought to be properly shared with another person to himself, turning Andromeda into an instrument of his own desires.
By contrast, Perseus had a selfless heart which recognized Andromeda’s distress and led him to brave the dangers of Cetus and rescue Andromeda. Love rescued Andromeda. Andromeda never forgot the daring and loving rescue and Perseus never forgot her beauty.
Although the marriage between Perseus and Andromeda enraged Phineus (because it took away his path to power), the story of Perseus and Andromeda is one in which faith and love triumph in the end. Phineus’ lack of love for Andromeda and his pure, unadulterated, ambition for power eventually destroys him. When Phineus storms the wedding feast, Perseus uses the head of Medusa—still faithful to Athena’s instruction not to look into the Gorgon’s eyes—and turns Phineas and his followers to stone. With the threat of Phineus and all the monsters subdued, Perseus and Andromeda are wed and their blessed marriage leads to the birth of many children. The laughter and smiles of Perseus and Andromeda remind us of the laughter and smiles of Abraham and Sarah at the birth of Isaac (whose name means laughter, or joy).
At the heart of Ovid’s Perseus narrative is a story about how faith and love triumph over vanity, ambition, and politics. Ending in marriage and children instead of death (a rarity among the classical myths), it is profoundly Christian. For the story of Perseus and Andromeda is about two flesh made one in love, from which pours forth joy-giving life. The story of Perseus and Andromeda offers hope that faith and love will triumph in the end. Faith, hope, and love bring about that most remarkable metamorphosis—a metamorphosis that reveals life instead of death.
*Painting credit: Joachim Wtewael (1566–1638), Perseus Releases Andromeda (1611), oil on canvas, 180 × 150 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.
Paul Krause is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and Associate Editor at VoeglinView. He holds advanced degrees in philosophy and theology and studied under Sir Roger Scruton.