Archive for Hellenism

Quality of Life, Trinity Style

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2018 by timtrue


John 3:1-17


What do we mean when we talk about “quality of life”?

It’s not just how wealthy you are, though financial well-being is a part of it.

Nor is it just about your health, though physical well-being fits into the picture too.

And it’s not just about social status, though relationships play a part.

Quality of life, we know, is a combination of all these things—and some others—how they work together in an integrated way to make your individual situation, whatever it is, most enjoyable for you.

Some people have serious health concerns. If this is you, then you know you don’t just give up and say, “Oh, well, guess it’s just a thorn in my flesh.” Rather, you seek the best remedies available. Maybe you will never experience full health again. Nevertheless, by keeping other areas of life in balance you can experience daily a high overall quality of life.

Or . . . how many stay-at-home moms have never daydreamed about dropping the kids off at daycare in order to land a job and bring in some extra income—income that you know will both make ends meet and give your family some extra “play” money?

Yet the stay-at-home moms I know also willingly make the extra-income sacrifice precisely because they want their children to experience greater stability in home life.

Quality-of-life questions are tricky. But achieving that sweet-spot quality of life is just that: sweet!


Well, thus far I’ve deliberately avoided the subject. But let’s bring it in now: religion. Where does your faith fit into your quality of life?

For Nicodemus, his faith was a crucial factor.

Today, Trinity Sunday, Nicodemus comes to Jesus confused. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” he asks.

His confusion indicates, among other things, just how important to him his faith is.

Nico—can I call him Nico?—is a part of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leadership that, according to John, is so vehemently opposed to Jesus in the first place. That Nico comes to Jesus at night, under cover of darkness, suggests how risky it is for him to seek Jesus out; and how much of a risk he was willing to take on account of his faith. His health, his wealth, his social status—he lays his quality of life on the line for his faith.

And the conversation isn’t easy. Jesus talks about being born from above and Nico only understands what it means to be born from below. Jesus talks of the Spirit; Nico of the flesh.

Jesus teaches the teacher of Israel that for those born from on high, the highest quality of life is initiated by God the Father, available through the redemption of the Son, and continues through the ongoing, everyday presence of the Spirit.

Jesus teaches the teacher that God is not as he has always thought, but is instead Triune: Father, Son, and Spirit.

The conversation ends with Nico fading into the darkness, seemingly as confused as ever.


We’ll come back to Nico. But first an excursus. I want to tell you about a book I’ve just read and found to be utterly and simultaneously fantastic and profound. It’s called Circe.

Any fans here of Greek mythology? If so, you probably recall the adventures experienced by the Greek hero Odysseus after the fall of the city Troy. One of these involved the witch Circe, who turned Odysseus’ men into pigs and back again; and at whose island home he stayed for a year as a guest.

Odysseus’ adventure enters this book; but only briefly. For he was a mortal; but Circe is immortal. She is a witch-goddess, to be more precise. And this is her story, covering some 10,000 years of ancient history.

She was born daughter of the Titan-god Helios. And thus, through her eyes as a bystander—for daughters didn’t dare interfere with their fathers’ schemes—the reader comes to know the Greek and Roman pantheon in an enlightening way: from a lesser goddess’s—that is to say a female’s—perspective.

These gods lived outside the moral universe of humanity. And thus they cared little for human beings. Truth be known, they cared little for anything but themselves, especially the most powerful among them, like Zeus and Poseidon and Helios.

At the same time, they loved to be worshiped—through the groveling prayers of humans and their sacrifices. And so, quite sadistically, as Circe relays, the gods of the pantheon inflicted pain and suffering on humanity in order that humans would grovel and sacrifice for their pity.

Point for the moment is the pantheon had no love—for divinity or humanity!—within it.

Circe, on the other hand, cared deeply for mortals. She thought it unfair and unjust for the gods to treat mortals with such contempt.

So, one of the things Circe does is find clever ways to rebel against the dysfunctional deities through favoring mortals, especially the weak and marginalized. Another thing Circe finds herself doing—and this runs much deeper to the heart of her story—is increasingly to desire mortality for herself; for only through mortality, she feels, will she be able to love as deeply and genuinely as possible.

In other words, she desires to be transformed through love.

It’s a brilliant book. I couldn’t put it down—I read 119 pages at my first sitting! The author’s name is Madeline Miller; and it’s only her second book. Her first—equally as brilliant—is The Song of Achilles.

Both are excellent reads for understanding the Hellenistic mindset so prevalent in Jesus’ world.


And that is why I bring this book up.

This book captures the religious mindset of the broader world in Jesus’ day; which was of a pantheon of gods who cared little for humanity—other than their groveling prayers and sacrifices.

The Hellenistic world feared its gods—whether a pantheon or just one god over all. And such a mindset—fear!—does little to improve quality of life.

Now, Nicodemus was a part of this Hellenistic world!

As you know, Nicodemus didn’t worship the Greek and Roman pantheon. He worshiped the god of the Hebrews—the same God, he thought, that he saw in the man Jesus.

But there’s a crucial connection to draw here.

The gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon were incapable of human love. So, too, in the minds of most people in the Hellenistic world, including most Jews—so, too, was a god who created the world and forever since watched over his creation as an aloof and distant king.

Thus was Nicodemus’s god to him.

Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel, feared his god. Nicodemus—Nico—offered prayers and sacrifices to his god. Nico may have even loved his god in some way—in the way that we love a movement to which we belong—that is, with a kind of human love.

But, for Nico and most everyone else in the Hellenistic world, could his god actually love him? It was an entirely foreign thought. How was it possible that a god could love humanity? How could it be that a human being could be born from on high?

And yet, Jesus teaches Nico, today (my emphases, obviously):

  • “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
  • “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
  • “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”





Today, Jesus teaches Nicodemus that God is not a pantheon of dysfunction. Neither is God absolutely monotheistic, unable to love co-equally and co-eternally. Rather, God is three-in-one, from eternity past, before there ever were heaven and earth and time and space, always loving and including the other, co-equally, co-eternally—forever and ever, God is love.

And the mind of Nico, the teacher of Israel, is blown.


Fortunately, this is not the only place Nicodemus shows up in the Bible, fading back into the darkness whence he came, apparently confused. In fact, he shows up two more times, both in this Gospel.

In chapter 7, members of the Sanhedrin command the Temple police to arrest Jesus without probable cause. Nicodemus is there; and he calls the Sanhedrin out for their injustice—only to be ridiculed by them. He sympathizes with Jesus, not in the dark now but in the light, before his peers.

His social status, wealth, and even his health don’t seem so important to him now.

And he shows up again in chapter 19, in the full light of the sinking afternoon sun, to carry the body of Jesus with another formerly secret disciple, Joseph of Arimathea, to a tomb.

Through God’s love, Nico has been transformed. His quality of life is on a new plane. He has gone from a life of flesh to a life of the Spirit; from thinking God is distant and aloof to experiencing, first-hand, relationship with and even within the Trinity.

For God is love.

So then, to answer my earlier question, “Where does your faith fit into your quality of life?” it transforms it beyond anything you could ask or imagine.

Point Break: Revisiting an Old Debate

Posted in Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2016 by timtrue

Saw a movie with my daughter this weekend.  She picked it out, rented it from Redbox, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have watched it.  It’s called Point Break, apparently a remake of a 1991 movie by the same name starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze, one I really will probably never see.


I remember seeing the trailer several months ago and thinking, “Looks like one big adrenaline rush.”  And that’s about what it was.

Without spoiling much, a villain and hero unite over a common goal.  They’re both poly-extreme-sports practitioners, both very good at all things extreme-sports: surfing 50-foot waves; motorcycling across razor-edged ridges; snowboarding avalanche chutes; free-climbing El-Capitan-like cliffs; etc.

So, yeah, one big adrenaline rush.

It was fun, sure.  But, better, because it kept me interested, it delved some into philosophical motivations for why adrenaline junkies do what they do.  Definitely worth the $1.63 we paid.

Yet it occurred to me some two days later that here was a modern-day take on a debate that has been with us since classical times.  Here was Aeneas versus Odysseus.

Odysseus, recall, was the wily mind that schemed up the whole wooden horse idea.  He was only one of many players in The Iliad; but, arguably, with his gift-horse brainstorm, can be credited with the Greek victory over the Trojans.

What comes next is The Odyssey, the story of Odysseus’ adventures as he returns from Troy to his beloved Ithaca and his wife Penelope.  He leaves the shores of Troy with a whole crew of companions.  But along the way, what with Polyphemus the Cyclops and the Sirens and Scylla and Charybdis and Circe and ten years, he loses all his crew and arrives home alone.

In this painting, Odysseus passes between the monster and the whirlpool.  Notice the artist’s depiction of Odysseus’ companions, eaten by the monster so that Odysseus can pass through alive.


So, was Odysseus selfish?

Some say so.  Or at least some say Vergil wanted us to think so.

Yeah, Vergil.  You know, the author of The Aeneid, the story that tells of Aeneas’ adventures from the shores of Troy to the shores of Italy.

Aeneas was one of only a few Trojan survivors after Troy’s legendary razing.  Soon after Odysseus set out on his quest, Aeneas sets out on a similar one.  But unlike Odysseus, he arrives at his new destination–after similarly grueling, poly-extreme-sports-like adventures–because he has been called there by the gods, not by his selfish desire to regain his own kingdom; and most of his crew arrives with him, for he, unlike wily Odysseus, would rather have died himself than let his crewmembers perish.

Aeneas’ selflessness is captured well in this painting, where he is carrying his aged father and leading his young son from razed Troy to their escape vessel.  Hardly the every-man-for-himself attitude of Odysseus!


Villain and hero.  Similar goals.  Very different motivations.  Retold in Point Break.

The villain commits crimes; the hero tries to prevent crimes.  Over the course of the movie the audience becomes endeared to both villain and hero.

Both anti- and protagonist are charming, after all.  But the villain–more than the hero–on top of his charismatic charm seems highly educated!  Despite the fact that he’s had to spend countless hours as an extreme athlete, honing his skills in multiple disciplines (not to mention his Greek-like physique)–an extreme sports Renaissance Man, as it were–nevertheless he has found time, somehow, to become well read, especially with respect to metaphysics.

In the end, I found the villain more endearing than the hero; and perhaps even no less realistic.  Maybe that was intentional on the part of the movie makers; or maybe it was just me.  I don’t know.

At any rate, this adrenaline-rush flick was definitely worth the $1.63 (and quality time with my daughter).

But I’m kind of tired of the same old thing.  Maybe you are too.  Can’t we turn the tables?  Can’t we get out of our pragmatic Roman mindsets for a while–at least for ninety minutes!–and sympathize with the more artistic Greeks for once?  Show me a compelling movie with a modern Odysseus as hero and that other guy, that guy who is all things Roman-virtue, as villain!