Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Thalatta! Thalatta!

There was you, there was me Happily cast away by some mutiny We rum'd and strummed and drummed up our own treasure And every note he heard...did Poseidon pilfer every word?! We have lost the key; can find no rest, no rhythm, rhyme nor measure...(I recall...) --RCPM, "Bottom of the Bay" We begin with a mountaintop experience, told in the words of Xenophon (as translated by H.G. Dakyns. For the record, Xenophon wrote under an assumed name and referred to himself in the third person, which was then a fairly common technique for autobiographical tales): But as the shout became louder and nearer, and those who from time to time came up, began racing at the top of the speed towards the shouters, and the shouting continually recommended with yet greater volume as the numbers increased, Xenophon settled in his mind that something extraordinary must have happened, so he mounted his horse, and taking with him Lycius and the cavalry, he galloped to the rescue. Presently they could hear the soldiers shouting and passing on the joyful word, "The sea! The sea!" Thereupon they began running, rearguard and all, and the baggage animals and horses came galloping up. But when they reached the summit, then indeed they fell to embracing one another--generals and officers and all--and the tears trickled down their cheeks. And on a sudden, some one, whoever it was, having passed down the order, the soldiers began bringing stones and erecting a great cairn, whereon they dedicated a host of untanned skins, and staves, and captured wicker shields, and with his own hand the guide hacked the shields to pieces, inviting the rest to follow his example. The Ten Thousand, after a journey filled with hardship, death, and fear finally came to the sea, to the point of salvation. It is, as Robin Waterfield points out, the climax of the story of the March Up Country. From here on out it all is a falling action, but one tinged with sadness and loss. Salvation at the sea proved little more than a dream. Discipline fell apart and the Ten Thousand found themselves as unwelcome among the Greeks as they had among the barbarians. As Waterfield points out, it's a tale Xenophon tells with a purpose. These stories introduce one of the major themes of Xenophon's book. It is one of a number told by Xenophon of the Greeks' journey along the Black Sea that suggest how a community falls apart, and that underline Xenophon's own personal disillusionment, as one by one his dreams fail. Their arrival at the sea was meant to change the focus of the army. Their worst dangers seemed to be past; there was no longer the unrelenting psychological pressure of each man fearing imminent death. They expected to be safe, and as a result unity no longer seemed as essential as before. Their arrival at the sea was supposed to be an end, not a continuation of the uncertainties of the retreat; they were supposed to have come home, and not still be outsiders. I'm continually amazed at Waterfield's ability to tease the universal story out of Xenophon's work and, in the process, keep it specific to Xenophon's narrative. It allows me to stretch and work the metaphor without fear that the material will grow too thin and split or too brittle and break. I can start at the mountaintop experience of the Greeks' first glimpse of the sea, then, and connect it in a way to my own look at the Christian walk without fear of overstretching the bounds of sanity or credulity. Consider this, then, a preface of sorts to the Field Guide to North American Evangelists and a bridge between my own dissatisfaction with an unfulfilling faith and what I can only conjecture drives certain categories of my former co-religionists. The image of a host of Greeks collapsing on each other in a joyful embrace is not particularly alien to the Christian mind, nor is the idea of reacting to an extraordinary event with the building of a sacrificial platform. The Jewish Bible is filled with tales of patriarchs and leaders experiencing god in some way, then commemorating the event with the construction and dedication of an altar. The term "mountaintop experience," meanwhile, is one I chose specifically because of the connotations it invites in the contemporary Christian mind. Christian life in the modern United States is filled with events intended to create a sense of unity. Youth and adult groups go off on weekend retreats and withdraw into several days with no TV or video games and extended meetings for praise and worship and preaching. Churches send out short-term missions trips that are equal parts work and team bonding. Organizations host conferences and seminars that cater to bringing disparate groups of Christians together for the purpose of fostering church unity. The aftermath of these events is filled with discussions of how to extend these experiences back out in to the real world, accompanied by admissions that it's simply not possible, no matter how desirable. To borrow a line from The Razor's Edge, it's easy to be a holy man on top of a mountain. The would-be holy man or woman is left with two options: extend the experience by remaining atop the mountain or go back to the village in the foothills and be reminded constantly of the struggles of life. Here on the mountain overlooking the sea we find the source of both Xenophon's and the modern Christian's disillusionment. All of the efforts of the Ten Thousand had been focused on the journey to the sea and that destination as the point of salvation after which all would be well. In focusing on this momentary salvation, they ignored or did not realize the possibility that all would not be well on the shores of the sea, only to expend all of their strength and unity in the initial rush of discovery. The strange insistence in modern Christianity that all depends on the moment of acceptance as exemplified by the praying of "the sinner's prayer" or a tearful rededication in the throes of passion at a retreat works in exactly the same way. As with Xenophon's profound disappointment with the events following the first sight of the sea, the Christian then spends most of the rest of his or her life in the faith looking back fondly at the mountain that can never quite be reached again. The Ten Thousand took to terrorizing the Greek and half-Greek cities of the Black Sea coast, then splintered along traditional lines and ultimately found themselves the friends of no one among their brethren, a pattern which is mirrored in church history. Before there was a Bible there were the Paulines, the Gnostics, the Judaizers, and probably others. Before there was a Holy Catholic Church there were the Donatists, the Arians, the Pelagians, and a host of others. Then there was the Catholic Church and the Orthodox and the Anglican and the Protestants, who further split into the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and so on. Then came the fundamentalist split which gave us the Baptists and the loose collections of Bible and Evangelical Free churches. Now we're seeing the story told all over again with the Emergent Church claiming the mantle of certain truth in the midst of postmodern anxiety. Not only that, there are the half-breeds, like Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses and the alien, exotic religions like Islam and Hinduism. Each religion and each branch thereof claims to have the true answer, the real interpretation, the pure and unadulterated truth. Other groups, they might begrudgingly admit, sometimes have the right answers, too, or at least answers that are close enough to work. Ultimately, however, it all starts to seem a little too random, a little too divisive, a little too disappointing. The brilliant vista of the sea from a mile in the air atop a mountain gives way to cities with closed gates and fearful sentries, marauding bands of brigands and barbarians, and the slow, dawning realization that home isn't all it's supposed to be. We can understand, then, why Xenophon looked with longing eyes upon the land at a place called Calpe Harbor. It was a perfect place for a colony, rich with resources, between the important ports of Heraclea and Byzantium, and with enough space for a city of ten thousand or more. He had found Eden and, atop it, dreamt of the development of the spiritual city. But even his dreams were aimed in the wrong direction. Again I'll let Waterfield take up the tale: But in Xenophon's account the dream was tinged with a specific sadness. Calpe was to be a haven not just against marauding Bithynian tribes, but against time and change themselves. Calpe was where the army had reunified, and Xenophon dreamt that there his army could avoid not just physical disintegration, but the disintegration of values, the onset of amorality inspired by personal greed that Dexippus, Cleartus and Boiscus typified. The clash was between collective values, in which the individual supports the community by ruling or obeying as best he can and selfish values, in which an individual is simply out for all he can get for himself. Calpe, in Xenophon's dream, was to be a haven of virtue. Such is the tantalizing promise of the end of the world in the Book of Revelation. John holds up the city of man, as exemplified by Rome, as a place of chaos, impiety, and ill virtue, a greedy prostitute overflowing with all the vices most foul. In the end Rome is swept away before the glory of the New Jerusalem, a golden city lit by the light of the virtue of god himself and surrounded by a world of order and divine justice (the New Earth of the end of Revelation is depicted as having no oceans, an odd feature if you don't realize that to the Jewish mind the sea represented chaos, so the absence of a sea indicated order. This, too, probably highlights a clash of philosophy between Jews and Greeks and later Romans, for although the Romans were more willing to push up country than their cultural forebearers, they were still a maritime people who famously made the Mediterranean "a Roman lake"). To the early Christians this apocalyptic fever was very real and representative of something to come at any moment. After two thousand years of false starts and crushing disappointment, however, the promise of Jesus' return seems to be wearing a bit thin. The Millennial fever of Rapture Ready and Left Behind seems a desperate claim of false hope, a glittering dream city sitting atop the untamed wilderness of the seashore. All the while the church stumbles along an unfriendly coast, splintering in to smaller and small groups and all the while wondering what became of the promise of home. [Edit: Gravy. I should have proofread this one...]

2 comments:

Trevor said...

with the Emergent Church claiming the mantle of certain truth in the midst of postmodern anxiety...

Shouldn't that be "with the Emerging Church deconstructing the very concept of certain truth, whilst sipping vanilla lattes in Second Cup?"

(Love the blog, by the way. Keep up the good work!)

Geds said...

Dagnabit, you're right.

I guess I should have paid more attention to all of those Nooma videos...