Sunday, March 23, 2008

Louis Markos: Pagan Mythology, and the Apollonian-Dionysian Duality

Louis Markos is a Professor in English at Houston Baptist University. He received his B.A. in English and History from Colgate University (Hamilton, NY) and his M.A. and Ph.D. in English from the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI). While at the University of Michigan, he specialized in British Romantic Poetry (his dissertation was on Wordsworth), Literary Theory, and the Classics. At Houston Baptist University (where he has taught since 1991), he offers courses in all three of these areas, as well as in Victorian Poetry and Prose, Seventeenth-Century Poetry and Prose, C. S. Lewis, Mythology, Epic, and Film (classics, Hitchcock, Capra, Hollywood Studios, musicals, etc.).

In the publishing arena, Dr. Markos is quite busy, and is the author of Lewis Agonistes: How C. S. Lewis can Train us to Wrestle with the Modern and Postmodern World (Broadman & Holman, 2003), and the new volume From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics (InterVarsity Press, 2007). In this book, he explores how the faith and discernment of both secular and Christian readers can be strengthened and enhanced by a vigorous interaction with the central literary masterpieces of the ancient world: Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, the Greek Tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and Virgil's great Roman epic, the Aeneid.

The latter volume is of particular interest to me in my reflection on mythology in connection with re-enchantment in the West. Lou took some time out of his speaking schedule while he is traveling to discuss the book, and in particular, the issue of the Apollonian-Dionysian duality in religion.

Morehead's Musings: Lou, thanks for making some time to discuss your most recent book. Can you begin by sharing why you have a personal interest in classical pagan mythology, and why your book puts forward the idea that Christians can benefit from reading this material?

Louis Markos: Although there are Christians out there whose faith has been challenged and even hurt by their reading of classical pagan mythology, I have always found that my faith is strengthened by such a reading. Indeed, I feel that my early love of mythology helped lay a foundation for me that has made me a stronger and richer Christian. For me, myth does not point away from Christ, but points to him. Christ fulfilled in himself all of the Old Testament law and prophets, but he also fulfilled all the deepest yearnings of the pagan world--and many of those yearnings are recorded in their myths and in the great literary works based on those myths (the Iliad and Odyssey, the Greek tragedies, and the Aeneid).

Morehead's Musings: In the introduction to your book you reference a passage in the biblical gospel of John, chapter 12 and verses 32-36, where Jesus presents a unique and brief parable in response to Greeks seeking to talk with him. You then refer to this episode as an example of Jesus using myth to build a bridge to doctrine. Can you touch on this a little bit and why myth of the past and present is important for Christians as they seek to interact with a Western world seeking re-enchantment?

Louis Markos: When Jesus sent back a message to the Greeks in John 12, he was speaking their language (the language of the Eleusinian mysteries, rather than the language of the Old Testament), practicing a kind of cultural evangelism that needs to be practiced today as well. And it needs to be practiced not only to reach people living in other cultures but the Neo-Pagans who live among us today in the midst of our own modern culture. We need to build a bridge, to touch them in their hearts and imaginations with the power and mystery and, yes, magic of the gospel. The modern Neo-Pagan yearns for story, for a grand narrative or adventure to be a part of. We have the best story of all and we need to share it not only as doctrine but as story. I think John Eldridge has done a good job explaining this, mostly by using the modern myths of fantasy and film.

Morehead's Musings: I'd like to focus on one particular chapter in your book, chapter 15 titled "Euripides' Bacchae and Hippolytus: Apollonian versus Dionysiac." This chapter is especially interesting to me in my research. I have encountered frequent references to the Dionysian urge, whether reading commentary on horror films, to study of festivals, to an analysis of the changing religious and spiritual landscape in America and the West. I have a hint as to how you interpret the Dionysian myth in terms of unfortunate duality as exemplified in the rational/festive, and the mythos/logos (with the latter discussed by Karen Armstrong in her book on various forms of religious fundamentalisms in The Battle for God (New York: Ballentine Books, 2000). As you engage the Bacchae and Dionysian myth, how do you define the "Apollonian-Dionysian duality?"

Louis Markos: The Apollonian takes in the rational, the masculine, the western, the logical; the Apollonian is that which seeks order and balance and calm. The Dionysian (or Dionysiac to use Nietzsche's phrasing) takes up the emotional, the feminine, the eastern, the intuitive; it is that which seeks to break all confines by an almost divine madness. Apollo speaks through the dream; Dionysus (or Bacchus) through intoxication. The former embodies the 18th century age of reason and enlightenment; the latter embodies the romantic emphasis on feeling and spontaneity. The Dionysian takes us out of our body, seeking a more direct inspiration and inner light, that comes not from study and system but from direct apprehension of the divine.

Morehead's Musings: In this chapter you state that "Western thought has traditionally privileged the Apollonian over the Dionysiac." You also note that Protestant Christianity "has seen some division between the Apollonian and the Dionysiac." Can you provide us with some examples as you offer an alternative interpretation of the Dionysian myth for engagement by Christians?

Louis Markos: If I were to place Protestantism next to Catholicism, I would say the former is more Apollonian (due to its emphasis on systematic biblical study and rational doctrine) while the latter is more Dionysian (due to its emphasis on sacrament and ritual). Within Protestantism, I would say that denominations like the Baptists, Presbyterians, and Dispensationalists are more Apollonian and the Pentecostals or Charismatics are more Dionysian. The former seek knowledge by way of inductive Bible study; the latter by a more direct kind of revelation mediated through spiritual gifts like tongues and prophecy. As Christians (and especially Protestants) we need to learn from both. Rather than thinking of charismatics as drunken revelers, think of them as people who are open to a kind of positive divine madness or "possession." The Romantics understood as well that we learn through feeling and intuition as much as through careful study, reason, and logic.

Morehead's Musings: J.K. van Baalen helped popularize an idea that said that controversial religious movements at times fill a vacuum in the culture left by a deficiency in the church in praxis and doctrine. I find this idea of interest when connected to a reading of Harvey Cox in his book The Feast of Fools (Harvard University Press, 1969) where he referred to human beings as homo festivus and homo fantasia, creatures with "the capacity for festive revelry and the ability to fantasize." In my experience of Burning Man Festival, with its strong emphasis on the Dionysian through art, performance, and festival celebration, alternative cultural events like this might be understood in some sense as a response to a "festivity deficit" in American culture that has not been addressed by the church. The same might be said of the continued cultural interest in fantasy in film, television, and literature.

To connect these ideas to the church, you reference the mutuality (at least ideally) between Lent and Carnival working in union. In your opinion, why do we not see more of this union in many of the expressions of Christianity in the West as "Christ fuses within himself both the Apollonian and the Dionysiac"? What traditions within Christianity seem to do a better job at including Dionysiac elements and working toward balance?

Louis Markos: The Medieval Catholics knew better than Protestants (and modern Catholics) how to balance the feast and fast. They understood better the rhythms of the sacred year. The rational and scientific (and the Protestant) seek too often to pull us out of the cycle to some kind of removed perspective above all the noise and mess of the world (and this is a temptation that affects men more than woman, for, like the Apollonian in general, it is a masculine urge). But to seek this too exclusively is to become something of a gnostic--to ultimately deny the flesh and the real world and seek a pure, balanced abstraction. We need to take part in the dance of life, in the cycles of the world. The old Catholic festivals (like those of the Israelites) were tied mostly to a seasonal cycle, to the new life of spring, the full blossom of summer, the slow decay of autumn, and the death and burial of winter. The Apollonian, aided by modernism, would pull us out of the cycle; the Dionysian, which has postmodern elements to it, would bring us back into the cycle. Solomon was right: there is a season for all things.

Morehead's Musings: I'd like to share an excerpt from a Christian writer and ask you for comment. Elizabeth-Anne Stewart wrote the interesting volume Jesus the Holy Fool (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 1999). As she discusses the positive aspects of the Dionysian in religion she connects this with the conception of Jesus as "holy fool." She writes, "Precisely because contemporary Western Christianity has become disconnected from the Holy Foolishness of Christ and from the Dionysian elements of religion, the person of Jesus has been 'tamed' into a marketable construct far removed from the gospel Jesus or from the living Christ who can still be encountered in Third World nations." She goes on and contrasts the Dionysian Christ with the prevalent "my buddy Jesus" in much of American evangelicalism, and concludes that Christians who find this appealing would "cower in dread before the figure of a Dionysian Christ because he is too passionate, too alive, and too challenging to be attractive." This will seem fairly provocative to many, but would you have any responsive thoughts, Lou?

Louis Markos: Amen! We have sought in the Apollonian west to domesticate and tame Jesus. But Jesus, like Aslan, is not a tame lion!! He is a fierce and passionate God; C. S. Lewis calls him the divine hunter and bridegroom. He is the hound of heaven. We have lost that sense of awe and reverence when we come in the presence of the holy God. When the children first see Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, they learn for the first time that something can be both beautiful and terrible at the same time. Jesus shatters all boundaries and fills us with new wine.

Morehead's Musings: Near the end of this chapter you state that the "Apollonian and the Dionysiac must be kept in balance..." How might this be done in the church, and how might an interaction with the pagan classics of mythology help with this task?

Louis Markos: First, let us keep a balance between a firm study of and meditation on the scriptures and a worship that draws us upward toward God. Let us allow God to speak to us in many ways. Let worship not be the "warm up" to the sermon, but let it be a vital part of the service that brings us into the presence of the Lord and fills us with both emotion and wisdom. If we read the pagan classics with eyes that see, we will see that even these pre-Christian pagans yearned for God and were hungry for divine presence and meaning. We would do well to learn from their hunger. The pagan classics can also teach us to balance the two in a different way. We can study them closely to understand what they teach us about the ancient world (Apollonian), but we must also allow ourselves to enter into them and to share in their yearnings (Dionysian). God set the time for every nation, says Paul in his address atop Mars Hill (Acts 17), "so that they might reach out and yearn after him: though he is not far from any of us. For in him we live and move and have our being." To wrestle with the pagan classics is to join in the dance.

Morehead's Musings: Lou, thank you again for talking about your book, and the interesting topic of the Dionysian in religion. I hope our discussion contributes to some new reflection on it in Christian circles.


brad brisco said...

Absolutely great interview!

Rowan Moses said...

That was a real stimulating interview