I enjoyed the movie, O Brother Where Art Thou, when it came first came out nineteen years ago. I still like it a lot. I’m halfway through the Iliad with the Odyssey next on my list as far as classics go. It was a beautiful blend of old South Americana and mythology. Not to mention, the music was excellent. Alison Krauss is the heartbeat of American music.
But as I’ve read the Bible and read the fathers and Reformed theology, some of the lyrical themes of that wonderful movie’s soundtrack no longer sit right in my craw, beautiful as they are. “I’ll Fly Away.” “The Angel Band.” “I Am Weary (Let Me Rest).” So much of that beautiful soundtrack is dotted with old poems about “going home” and finding final and eternal rest in a heavenly home. That’s appropriate for the movie because it’s loosely based on the Odyssey, a story about a man trying to get back home.
And yet, if we can’t feel at home in this world anymore because we’re just passing through, what good is this world? What real need do we have to care for it if God is going to burn it up (as a certain type of theology promises). I once heard a popular preacher (speaking about global warming), “If you think it’s hot now, wait until Jesus gets a hold of it!” There are few more wicked sentiments I can think of for a man of the cloth to proclaim from a pulpit. It implies that the Creator is somehow chomping at the bit, eager to obliterate everything good that he made that was stained by sin.
And I’ve heard it geared towards teenagers as well. Take this world and give me Jesus. I’m not home yet. This is not where I belong. There could more harmful things to listen to on the radio. But this is just a more modern repacking of “I’ll fly away” and “this world is not my home.”
This is how Greek philosophy got its fingers around the gospel’s throat and never really let go. On the one hand, the Epicureans (“eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die”) saw our bodies as cruise ships to be enjoyed until they shipwreck on the shallow reefs of indulgence. But on the other hand, the one that grabbed onto Christianity, the body was a prison from which the soul needed to escape. That’s what the disciples of Plato believed. Don’t indulge the body. Indulge the mind. Ignore the body. It’s evil and untrustworthy and too much like the animals. What matters is reason (the Logos). Feed the mind with knowledge. If you gain enough knowledge, you feed the soul and the soul is what matters.
Plato said that all the physical things you see are like shadows on a cave wall. There’s a fire behind you, but you can’t see the fire because you’re chained up in the cave and you can only see the shadows on the wall that the fire is casting. According to Plato, all physical reality is made up of shadows. They aren’t important. What really matters is the thing that is casting the shadow- the hidden thing, the thing that you can’t see. That’s what matters. In the words of Master Yoda, “Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.”
Plato believed that the young should be taught to welcome death, neither to regret nor lament it. Does that sound familiar? I’ve heard and seen too much nonsense about Christian funerals as a flavor of celebration. Grieving with hope gets replaced with the celebration of liberation. Plato believed that death is good, something to be greeted like an old friend. Why? He believed that because he believed death is the moment when the immortal soul is set free from the prison of the physical body.
Plato viewed death as a jailbreak for the soul. Biblical Christianity views death as the last enemy to be destroyed. What happens after death? Well, Plato said that judgment is based upon deeds. The wicked go to hell. But the righteous souls fly away to join the stars. Does that sound familiar? Socrates famously said upon his deathbed that the real “me” was not the corpse he would leave behind, but that which is inside the body before death. He said a human is a “little soul carrying around a corpse.”
Platonists believed that the virtuous joined the stars at death. They became stars. The immortal souls are implanted into human bodies (male, the superior, and female, the inferior) and the main task of the soul is to master the desires and emotions of the body: pleasure, pain, fear, rage, etc. Those who do that well enough go and join the stars.
And so, if you believe the body is a prison and death is the jailbreak, why would you believe in a reality in which you are reunited with your prison? No prisoner wants to go back to the jail he just escaped. That’s why Plato is not very helpful in understanding the incarnation or the resurrection. Plato would certainly not have wanted to live out eternity in a physical world.
The Stoics, for instance, believed that at the end of the present age, everything would be dissolved by fire, and the whole order of the universe would end. Does that sound familiar? The Greeks didn’t want to live in a physical world. They wanted the physical world to burn so that they could have spiritual bliss.
Epicureans said that death is the end of everything. Yolo. Carpe diem.
Platonists said that death is the beginning of everything. Don’t fear the jailbreak. Be ready to fly away.
If the world is Epicurean, the Church has become Platonic. In the first case, the resurrection is disbelieved as ridiculous. In the second, it is reduced as a irrelevant, a secondary curiosity that simply make our faith distinct. And on both views, this world is not seen as a home. It’s seen as a buffet to be used or an enclosure to be destroyed.
And yet, I understand the impulse to those songs. I understand the homesickness. But that other world for which we are made is a world that will one day come to this world so that “heaven and earth be one.” This world is not yet my home. But it will be. That’s my hope.