The question of how Christians should engage culture is one which garners diverse opinions from people of faith. Many argue that we should participate in our culture. Sometimes, this means conceding to whatever has been deemed fashionable by society. Then there are those who do not see the value of engaging with culture, echoing Tertullian’s question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”
The answer to these questions in their totality is complex. However, one interesting literary relationship can shed light on it: The Gospel of Mark’s use of Homer’s Odyssey.
Each of the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are written with certain audiences in mind. Matthew was written for the Jews and Luke to Theophilus, a Greek acquaintance of the author. Mark was probably written for a more general Greek audience given its lack of Christ’s family tree and its explanation of Jewish customs.
Mark features an interesting literary device called the Messianic Secret where a figure recognizes Christ as the Messiah but he instructs them to keep his identity a secret.
This occurs at the healing of the leper (Mark 1:43-45a), his parables explaining the mystery of the Kingdom of God (4:11), and Peter’s confession of faith (8:29-30). He finally reveals his identity at his trial in front of Jewish religious leaders (14:62).
This similar patter occurs in the Odyssey. When Odysseus finally arrives at his home after years of grueling travel, he tests the loyalty of his subjects while staying hidden from his wife’s murderous suitors. He appears to his son Telemachus, his nurse, Eurycleia, and finally the suitors. When he reveals himself to those he deems faithful, it is always followed by an instruction to keep his identity confidential.
There are of course other interesting connections between Jesus and Odysseus.
For example, Odysseus is described as “a man who’s had his share of sorrows” while the Messiah was prophesied to be “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). They are both skilled at woodworking. Odysseus has to outwit the sea god Poseidon while Jesus displays his authority over the waters twice (Mark 4:35-41 and 6:45-56). Both Jesus and Odysseus are opposed by hostile groups with homicidal determinations.
All of these points of contact between the two texts suggest that the relationship between Mark and the Odyssey are more than just coincidental. This mimetic activity seems intentional on the part of the writer of Mark. The story patterns are remarkably similar: A king reaches his kingdom after a period of estrangement. He secretly reveals himself to a faithful few until a climactic revelation in front of his enemies enables him to take back what is his.
Christ came to earth, a realm estranged from him by sin, by the means of the Incarnation (many Early Church Fathers preached that this was a “disguise” meant to destroy the Devil). He revealed himself to a chosen few until his trial in front of his “enemies.” He defeats them and is vindicated by his resurrection. Now we, as the Body of Christ, are tasked with participating in the redeeming of the world by subjugating all things to Christ.
The key contrast between Christ and Odysseus occurs when their identities are finally revealed. For Odysseus, his revelation entails vengeance in the death of the suitors. Meanwhile Christ’s confession of his true identity causes his death. Ultimately, Christ does conquer his cosmic enemies in the resurrection. Odysseus embodies the Greek heroic ethic of violent retribution while Christ embodies a sacrificial ethic. This is intentional to prove that Christ is the fulfillment of the concept of hero.
St. Basil further explains the importance of using “secular” learning, saying, “We exercise our spiritual perceptions on the secular writings—which are not so much different and in which we see the truth, so to speak, in shadows and mirrors.” This summarizes both the way Mark appropriates the tale of Odysseus.
Mark is hardly the only example of this methodology. It is similar to how Paul engages the philosophers at Athens in Acts 17. When he tells them, “For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring,’” (Acts 17:28) he is interacting with the truth that had been discovered by their poets. The Early Church was comfortable utilizing pagan imagery for their theological purposes. The phoenix was a popular heathen symbol which appeared in Christian art to typify Christ (also see 1 Clement 25).
Mark’s genius use of the Odyssey gives a model for Christians when it comes to cultural engagement. It shows us that we don’t have to withdraw from or concede to the larger society. Rather, we can maintain a healthy acceptance of truth wherever we find it and subject it to Christ.
We shouldn’t be surprised to find truth in these pagan epics or in aspects of modern culture. Peter Leithart pointed out that every human work of art reflects, in some way, God’s story. As Christians, our duty is to act out our “royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9) and turn the secular into the sacred, like Mark does with Homer. When engaging with truth in culture, we need to remember, “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Col. 2:17).