Resisting the Sirens’ Song

Image result for the odyssey sirens

In Homer’s classic epic, The Odyssey, tells the story of Odysseus, the King of Ithaca, and his perilous journey home after the Trojan War. Along the way, Homer faces many dangers, but perhaps the greatest danger of all are the Sirens.

A Picture of Temptation

The Sirens are seductive, and they sing a beautiful song that sailors cannot resist. However, the Sirens’ song is deadly: when sailors are enticed by it and steer their ships towards it, they are lured to their death, as they crash their boats into the rocks.

The Sirens’ song is a picture of temptation. People are not tempted by things which are grotesque and terrible, but by the allure of something which is desirable and attractive. However, there are things in life which draw us in with a promise that is not only empty, but which will lead to your demise and the shipwrecking of your life.

Two Approaches to Resisting Temptation

In his book, Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible and Brain ScienceDrew Dyke points out that the Sirens are not only used by Homer in The Odyssey as a picture of temptation (and how to resist it), but they were also used by Apollonius Rhodius in his epic, Argonautica,  which was written about 500 years after The Odyssey. Interestingly, Rhodius mentioned the Sirens in order to offer a different approach to resisting temptation.

Approach #1: The Odyssey

Odysseus knows about the danger of the Sirens and he is aware of his own weakness. Rather than assuming that he will be strong enough to resist the Sirens’ song, Odysseus makes plans in order to protect himself and his men from lure of the Sirens: he orders his men to tie him to the mast, and tells them not to untie him no matter how much he pleads with them. To make sure the sailors aren’t seduced, he has them stuff their ears with beeswax so they won’t hear the Sirens’ song.

When Odysseus hears the Sirens’ song, he tries to escape the ropes and begs his sailors to free him, but they ignore him and continue sailing. Odysseus’ plan to overcome temptation works and they survive the danger of the Sirens’ song.

The approach to temptation laid out in The Odyssey is akin to asking others to keep you accountable and taking steps to prevent yourself from coming in contact with things that tempt you.

This approach is wise in that it recognizes human weakness. We need more than just good advice, we need help. If all we needed was good advice, no one would be overweight or broke or in experience conflict in their relationships, since a myriad of good advice on these topics is readily available for free. The fact that people still struggle with these things is proof that what we need is more than just good advice: we need help to overcome our weaknesses and do what is right, not only towards others, but even for our own best interests.

For a message on how the gospel is good news, rather than good advice, see: In Thy Dark Streets Shineth)

Approach #2: Argonautica

In Argonautica, the Argonauts have to sail past the same Sirens, but they take a different approach to overcoming temptation:

On board their ship is a musician named Orpheus. When they hear the Sirens’ song, rather than stuffing their ears with wax and tying themselves up to avoid the allure of the song, they rather have Orpheus get out his lyre and play a louder and more beautiful song. Because of Orpheus’ “sweeter song,” the sailors are able to resist the temptation of the Sirens’ song, and they pass by securely.

This approach to temptation does not merely restrain the hand, but seeks to capture the heart.

Dyke points out that while it is wise to recognize your own weaknesses and set up safeguards to protect yourself, the best way to resist temptation and the most powerful means of self-control is to listen to a “sweeter song.”

A Sweeter Song

Augustine of Hippo explained that what defines a person most is what they love. Therefore, in order to change who a person is, we should seek to change what they love.

How do we do that? By showing them a better story and a sweeter song.

That better story and sweeter song is found in Jesus. Ultimately all people are seeking the same things: joy and happiness, relief from suffering and pain, love and acceptance, overcoming the limitations of this physical world, adventure and discovery… the list could go on. However, the ways and the places in which many people seek these things will not only leave them unfulfilled but will dash them against rocks and shipwreck their lives. It is only in Jesus that our deepest longings will be fully and ultimately satisfied.

Jesus and the salvation He gives is the sweeter song. May we help others to see that! There may be times when it is wise to take practical measures to prevent ourselves from giving in to temptation, but ultimately we need our hearts to be won over by the sweeter song. May we listen to it loudly and often, that our hearts may know it and not accept any lesser, competing songs!

Hemingway and Unfulfilled Longing

‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ – with Ernest Hemingway:

A Farewell to Arms
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Hemingway: To die. Alone. In the rain.

For Whom the Bell Tolls
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Hemingway: To die doing something heroic…even if it was completely meaningless and accomplished nothing.

The Sun Also Rises
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Hemingway: Because he was in love with someone who would never love him back; a fate worse than death.

I recently read each of these books as part of my decision to read more non-fiction literature. Tim Keller at one point suggested that pastors, who generally read a lot of non-fiction, ought to also read quality fiction in order to stimulate their creativity and imagination. Some of my favorites have been Tolkien, Dostoyevsky and Steinbeck.

And then there’s Hemingway…

The Charm of Hemingway

With Hemingway, you don’t get happy endings in which everything wraps up perfectly and people live happily ever after.

With Hemingway, you get a good story, but most of all, you get a lot of introspection and existential questions, which never get resolved.

Perhaps that’s the charm and appeal of Hemingway: he didn’t try to sugarcoat things. He presents life in all of its facets: joy and pain, longing and disappointment. He’s not afraid to leave a dilemma unresolved, or to have a character’s longing go unfulfilled.

Writing About Himself

As I read his stories, I can’t help but feel that Hemingway is writing about himself – and above all, about his inner struggle to find meaning in life apart from God.

He longs to be heroic and adventurous, and indeed he was – both in the stories and in real life. Yet in the end, even he himself questions what the meaning of life is – and he is never able to sufficiently answer the question, not even in a way that satisfies himself.

It’s no surprise that the main characters in Hemingway’s stories are all Americans living abroad – like Hemingway was. But more importantly, they are all atheists – like Hemingway himself. And not just atheists, but conflicted atheists, who realize the problems inherent to atheism…

In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s character faces the tragic loss of his wife and child, and in a moment of desperation he forfeits his atheism and prays to God! I can’t help but believe that this is Ernest himself admitting that deep down inside, when faced with the reality of life, death and eternity, he knew there was a God – even if he didn’t like to admit it and didn’t want to acknowledge Him.

In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s character is fighting on the losing side of a war, in which the deaths of all those around him won’t change a single thing except to cause pain and loss. He tries to convince himself that all that matters is living heroically and all that matters is living for something bigger than yourself… except that too is completely meaningless. So life is a struggle, it is pain and strife – intermixed with some pleasure – followed by death.

In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s thesis is that the point of life is to have fun and enjoy yourself – #YOLO, before #YOLO was a thing. The only problem is: what if you fail to attain that which you want, and therefore you do not succeed at enjoying yourself in life? What then is the point of living?

It is as if Hemingway, in each of his books, is desperately trying to convince himself that there is meaning in life apart from God – and constantly failing to do so.

At least he was honest.

And yet his life ended in self-inflicted tragedy, as if it was one of his own stories.

What Hemingway Missed: The Reality to Which All the Longings Point

What Hemingway failed to realize – and tragically so, considering that he asked all the right questions and seemingly came so close – was that all of the disappointment of the unfulfilled longings of this life points to a reality which is outside of this world.

This is the hope of the Christian gospel: that the unfulfilled longings we have now will actually be fulfilled one day. That the reason we are unsatisfied with life in this world is because we were made for perfection, and deep down we instinctually know the way that things ought to be – even though it’s not how they are right now. We long for a world in which there is love without parting. We long for a world of adventure and nobility, where love is reciprocated, a world of righteousness where injustice is no more and where life does not end.

And the promise of the Bible is that such a world is what we were made for; it has been lost, but it will exist again – and by the grace of God we will get to be part of it because of what Jesus did for us.

The knowledge of that gives actual meaning to our present struggles and direction and purpose to our lives here and now – something truly bigger than ourselves, which will result in the fulfillment of our presently unfulfilled longings.

Vacation and Russian Novels

For the past week we have been on vacation in California. For the first week of it we were in Orange County where I attended the Calvary Chapel pastors conference in Costa Mesa. Rosemary and the kids spent time with friends and at the beach, and Rosemary was able to attend some parts of the conference as well. The conference was refreshing; a great time of focusing on the Lord and recentering as well as reconnecting with friends from all over the world. 

After that we went down to North San Diego and visited friends and family there, and then came to Los Angeles to stay with family. We’ll be back in Colorado for church on Sunday.

Overlooking Los Angeles from the Griffith Observatory in the Hollywood hills 

One of the books I’ve been reading on vacation is Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Several years ago I read Crime and Punishment and it became one of my favorite books. I think Dostoyevsky was a brilliant writer, particularly how he developed characters and got inside their minds.
What was interesting about Crime and Punishment was that it wasn’t only a novel so much as it was a platform for Dostoyevsky’s view of human anthropology – in other words: what makes us tick. What I found even more interesting, as I looked more into Russian literature from that time period, was that the other great Russian author, Tolstoy, did the same thing with his novels, but he had distinctly different views. 

Tolstoy was a pacifist, who considered himself a Christian, but didn’t want anything to do with church in any way. In fact, the more you get to know his views, you realize that he was extremely legalistic and held many strange interpretations of Biblical passages. For example, Tolstoy said that since Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not resist an evil person” (Matthew 5:39), that means that we should not even have police, because the role of the police is to resist evil people. What he was arguing for was beyond pacifism to a form of anarchy, which was based on his fundamental belief in the basic goodness of humankind: that left to our own devices, with no outside intervention, people would trend towards good rather than evil, and that the trajectory of the human race is towards greater virtue, peace and harmony. Tolstoy’s views were a major influence on Ghandi and others.

Dostoyevsky on the other hand, did not share Tolstoy’s views about humanity. Dostoyevsky considered himself a serious Christian, something which is very apparent in his writing, and he held much more traditional (and biblical) views about the nature of humankind and what makes us tick. 

In Crime and Punishment, for example, the main character is a university student who ends up killing the older woman he lives with. The popular thinking at the time (and still in our time as well) was the Englightenment theory that people are basically good, and that when people do things that are wrong, the reason they do them is either because of lack of education or because of poverty. Thus, the thought is that if you can educate people and bring them out of poverty, then crime and violence, as well as racism and hatred will cease to exist. The Bible does not agree with this theory, and says that the reason people do bad things, is because we are sinful and broken, and sin doesn’t just affect us, but it dwells within us, it is part of our very core. We weren’t designed by God to be this way, and it is for this reason that Jesus came, to redeem us from the curse of sin and death. But apart from redemption, all people are sinful, which is the reason we do sinful things. 

If there is any question about this, Nazi Germany is a perfect case study of how the most educated society in the world, which was well off economically, committed some of the worst atrocities the world has ever seen. If the Englightenment theory was true, that shouldn’t have happened, but the Biblical view would say: educated and rich people are still sinners, they’re just educated and rich sinners. What all people need is a new heart, something which can only be found in and through Jesus Christ.
In Crime and Punishment the main character is an educated young man who kills his landlord simply because he wants to, because he’s curious what it will be like, and then he justifies his actions to himself. Why do people do bad things? Because sin dwells within us, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, Dostoevsky would say.

I am only 20% of the way through The Brothers Karamazov, but am very much enjoying it. It tells the story of a father and his 3 sons, actually 4 – as one of the servants is also the son of the man. The father is a foolish and base man, his oldest son is similarly base, but at least has a sense of conscience which his father seems to lack. The second son is an intellectual and considers himself an atheist, but is torn because he realizes that if there is no God and no afterlife and no Heaven or Hell, then there is no meaning to life. The third son is an apprentice monk at the local monastery, where he studies under a devout elder. There is another elder at the monastery who is crazy, and somehow in his derangedness is more popular with the people than the devout and humble  elder who actually says a lot of things which are good and biblical.

One of the points that Dostoyevsky is making in the book is that the life of sincere Christian faith put into practice is the truly good life. Through the characters he is showing the results of a life of sin and the meaninglessness and pain of life apart from God and encouraging the reader to forsake sin and turn to God.

At least that’s what I’ve gotten out of it so far. I’ll let you know if anything changes!

Here are some excerpts:

“Love God’s people, let not strangers draw away the flock, for if you slumber in your slothfulness and disdainful pride, or worse still, in covetousness, they will come from all sides and draw away your flock. Expound the Gospel to the people unceasingly. Do not love gold and silver. Have faith. Cling to the banner and raise it on high.”  – Father Zossima, the humble and sincere elder to Alyosha, the third son who is a Christian

“Remember, young man, unceasingly,” Father Païssy began, without preface, “[humanism], which has become a great power, has, especially in the last century, analyzed everything divine handed down to us in the holy books. But they have only analyzed the parts and overlooked the whole, and indeed their blindness is marvelous. Yet the whole still stands steadfast before their eyes, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Has it not lasted nineteen centuries, is it not still a living, a moving power in the individual soul and in the masses of people? It is still as strong and living even in the souls of atheists, who have destroyed everything! For even those who have renounced Christianity and attack it, in their inmost being still follow the Christian ideal, for hitherto neither their subtlety nor the ardor of their hearts has been able to create a higher ideal of man and of virtue than the ideal given by Christ. When it has been attempted, the result has been only grotesque.