A Meditation on Home in Three Great Books and a Film
What a fascinating year 2018 has already turned out to be. Cosby’s conviction still makes my heart simultaneously sing and cringe; North and South Korea are about to sign a peace treaty? Have we slipped into an alternate reality? If I were writing the screenplay of the 21st century, perhaps this first quarter of 2018 would serve as a balancing act to the rough scene that would have been 2017. Contemporary moments and the current news cycle are, at their best, fleeting. Perhaps tomorrow we will awaken to more news about why the world is terrible. In terms of literature, reading contemporary authors rather resembles the roller coaster that is the the news cycle: authors come and go, and their momentary fame may or may not indicate a significant author who is worth the time investment to study his work.
The books John Mark Reynolds names as “Great Books,” however, are something different. They stand above the faddishness of what publishers think will sell today, and they speak to each generation with a fresh voice. The messages and themes of the Great Books function as a sort of eternal conversation between the living and dead; such themes appear in contemporary works as well, and when we are aware of the previous conversation, their reappearance hits us with greater power. To illustrate this claim, I want to briefly survey the longing for home in three Great Books (The Odyssey, The Bible, and The Aeneid) and then examine the same theme in the recent film The Greatest Showman. By immersing ourselves in the conversation which connects the living and dead, we are able to contribute to this conversation in our contemporary moment.
Homer’s greatest poem tells the tale of that “man of winding ways” and his journey home. Above all else, Odysseus longs to return home. After ten years fighting Troy, he turns towards his beloved Ithaca. Along the way, he tells us, he met with continual misfortune. A gift from Aeolus, god of winds, blew him and his men to the shore of Ithaca; his men then opened the bag and released the winds which drove them across the sea. Odysseus escaped the cyclop’s lair, only to brag to blind Polyphemus that “It was Oddysseus” who speared his single eye; Polyphemus’ rage resulted in sea-god Poseidon’s active work against Odysseus’ return. Alone, shipwrecked, and naked, the king of Ithaca begged for help from the king and queen of Phaeacia. At long last, twenty years after leaving home, the king returned. Home, however, is not just a physical location for Odysseus. It is also a person: his queen, Penelope. Reunited with his queen and his son in his land, Odysseus has finally reached his destination. The Odyssey is a great adventure tale, and it depicts us, the hearers and the readers, as humanity searching for our home. Home is not reached quickly or easily; many dangers, distractions, and distances must be overcome to achieve the goal. But home is where happiness and flourishing reside, Homer shows us, and as such is a worthwhile goal for human beings.
Half the fun of reading through a list of Great Books lies in the internal contradictions such books contain. Homer fits squarely within the enchanted, mythological reality of the Greek imagination. The Bible does not; it claims to describe the real world, and occasionally pulls back the theological curtain to show us God’s purposes behind the mundane world. Home is an active question considered in Scripture. We first meet humanity in paradise, where home is a sinless physical existence with Man and Woman dwelling in the presence of God as fully alive human beings. After sin, however, Genesis depicts human life as being in “the wilderness.” The life of humanity involves seeking to recreate home in the wilderness; cities, nations, kings, peasants, men, women, and children all long for that first home, but cannot return. Jesus speaks to this desire when he told his disciples, “I come to bring life, and that more abundantly.” Jesus came not to establish an earthly kingdom, but to restore the life which had been yielded to the domain of sin. The biblical canon concludes with a picture of restored human living. John’s Revelation does not show disembodied souls floating on Hallmark clouds, but rather humans living on a “new earth” which has been joined with the “new heavens” through the descent of the “new Jerusalem.” Under the benevolent rule of Jesus, humanity finds their true home. The Bible shows us a current picture of home, where the Church becomes the foreshadow of our future reality. One day, we will live together in harmony without sin; in this world, while we “have troubles,” we also have a foretaste of the peace which is coming.
Writing just before the birth of Christ, Virgil took the question of home and extended it into the narrative of the exile. Aeneas and his Trojans have suffered the worst fate: they witnessed the utter destruction of their city by their dishonourable foes. The gods have promised a future home, but Aeneas and his men must find and build it. The Aeneid is less a tale of tricks and cleverness and more a story of hope denied. Three times Aeneas tried to build his city, and three times the gods rejected his efforts. He seemed to find everything he and his men could need with Dido in Carthage, but the gods called him onwards (to Dido’s dismay). By the conclusion, Aeneas and his men had built Alba Longa and received the prophecy that one day Romulus and Remus would build the greatest city, for which “no limits” would be set. Virgil died with The Aeneid incomplete, but his narrative contains the beginnings of a new home for the exiled Trojans. Virgil displays the world as having all the necessary components for home, but home depends on humanity’s ingenuity. Home is what we make in the world.
In these three Great Books, home is a substantial theme. Contemplating them calls us to consider the question of home in our own day. The study of Great Books is not content to remain in ancient days, but equips us to better examine the contemporary moment in which God has placed us. The Greatest Showman contains a beautiful exploration of home which resonates with humanity of the 21st century. P.T. Barnum (played by Hugh Jackman) creates his circus by recruiting unusual humans for his acts: the strong man, the bearded woman, the midget, the tightrope walker, and so on. Over the course of the film, Barnum is sucked into the politically advantageous world of the cultural elite; the climax of the film occurs in the song “From Now On” where Barnum repents of his pride. For these unusual human beings, the circus had become their home. For them, this was the place where they were celebrated for who they are; the mockery and fear of the crowds transformed into admiration and amazement under the circus lights. By the conclusion of the film, The Greatest Showman turned from a (possibly fictional) biopic into a meditation on home for those previously shunned by humanity. As the viewers, our hearts sing with theirs in the lyrics: “And we will come back home! Home again! And we will come back home! Home again!” The reopening of the circus is the return to their home. The emotional depths of The Greatest Showman are best expressed in this song, and reveals that the circus became something more; far from a crass exploitation of the strange, Barnum created a way for those who had never experienced it to discover the home they lacked.
It is easy to focus on the present needs, events, and ideas. Reading a list of “great books” expands out perspective; such a project draws us out of ourselves and reminds us that we are the latest in many generations to ponder and answer significant questions. Suddenly, the new book, film, or song grows in importance because it is contributing to an intergenerational conversation about an idea which unifies mankind. Such a project helps to connect the living with dead, and better equip us with their wisdom; along the way, we become more human.
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Josh Herring is a Humanities Instructor at Thales Academy, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Hillsdale College, and a doctoral student in Faulkner University’s Great Books program. He has written for Moral Apologetics, The Imaginative Conservative, Think Christian, and The Federalist; he loves studying the intersection of history, literature, theology, and ideas expressed in the complexities of human life.